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Still hoping for the best

By the Gazette Editorial Board

Pledging $2.5 billion in aid to Jordan, three Arab Gulf states namely Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE have offered a Marshall-like initiative to that country, to help it out of its economic crisis.

 

This has not been the first time for the Gulf States to rush to the aid of an Arab country including Jordan itself. In fact, Jordan and Morocco were each pledged a similar amount in 2011 by the Gulf Co-operation Council. However, the five-year pledge expired last year.

 

Peaceful protests, sparked by an income tax bill which the government had suggested as part of its austerity plan, led King Abdallah of Jordan to sack the prime minister, in a bid to appease public anger. Saudi Arabia has been quick to act to calm down the furious Jordanian street.

 

Saudi Arabia invited Kuwait and the UAE to a summit in Mecca to discuss an aid package, which includes a central bank deposit, World Bank guarantees, five years of budget support and funding for development projects.

 

Jordan has been struggling to reduce its debt after getting a $723 million loan from the IMF in 2016. The mass protests which broke out in recent days against price hikes and a new income tax system have been very disturbing, not only for Jordan but also for neighbouring Arab countries.

 

Jordan, flanked by Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and Saudi Arabia, is a strategically important country by virtue of its geopolitical position. Jordan has been affected by regional turmoil which forced it to receive an influx of refugees who fled the wars in neighbouring Syria and Iraq. Moreover, Jordan is hosting almost two million Palestinian refugees.

 

The cash-strapped government has been strained by problems related to high unemployment and the burden of hosting such a high number of refugees.

 

In fact, the show of unity demonstrated by the Gulf Arab countries is a model that should have a wider scope and be part of a systematised plan of action.

 

The support which the Gulf states have lent Jordan follows, to some extent, the example of the EU bailout plan for Greece, which has continued to date, in response to the refugee situation in Greece.

 

These same Arab countries also stood behind Egypt after the 2013 revolution to help it stand on its feet following a very difficult phase of political, social and economic instability.

 

Hopes for a fully-fledged economic Arab unity had been high in the wake of the establishment of the Arab League in 1945.  And now more than 70 years later, this unity is still a dream, although there are many situations in which inter-Arab fraternity and support are at their best.

As Bashar Al Assad’s government started to look secure – a sign some parties saw as the start of an end to the civil war in Syria – tension engineered by the Western world escalated against Al Assad, the West charging him with launching a chemical gas raid against civilians in Douma.

Despite denials by both Damascus and Moscow, the international community, led by the US and France called for retaliation against the Assad regime.

The question is, did Al Assad really shower his nation with Sarin gas? And why? During the last few weeks, the Syrian military forces managed to record a victory over the militants of the Syrian Free Army that dominated the enclave of Douma. This forced them to accept a deal that involved evacuating the town.

Then media photos of children suffocating in a Sarin gas attack raised world anger against Al Assad and prompted President Trump, who stated a week ago of his intention to end the US military presence in Syria soon, to vow retaliation against the Assad regime for such a 'crime against humanity'.

A few hours later, Israel appeared to take advantage of world anger against the Damascus regime and its supporting camp, to escalate its proxy war against Iran in Syria. It launched air raids against a military base in central Syria.

Israel declined to confirm or deny the raids, but Russian and Iranian news services reported that two Israeli F-15 war planes carried out the strike that killed 14 people.

The Russian military said the planes had approached from the Mediterranean and then fired missiles from Lebanese airspace.

Syria’s air defence systems shot down five of the eight missiles fired, according to the Russian news agency, Interfax. Three other missiles, however, hit a Syrian military base known as T4.

As has always been the case, Washington made no comment on the Israeli raids. It focused instead on threatening retaliation against both Syria and Russia for the said gas attack on Douma.

During the Security Council session that Russia called for to debate the gas raid crisis, the US envoy Nikki Haley lashed out at both Damascus and Moscow. She referred to Moscow as the “Russian regime, whose hands are all covered in the blood of Syrian children”.

The Russian envoy at the Security Council denied that there had been gas raids. He said that “Russia is being unpardonably threatened” and that Russian investigators had found no evidence of a chemical attack in Douma, and that it had been staged by rebels, trained in carrying out false-flag provocations by US Special Forces.

The latest escalation comes at a pivotal time for the US to assist Trump to reconsider his pledge to withdraw forces from Syria. What is more to be feared is that the escalation of tension between the different powers in Syria might turn into a major threat to peace and security far beyond the region as the UN special envoy to Syria recently warned.

Moscow, March 31, 2018 (AFP) - Russia said on Saturday that Britain had to reduce its diplomatic staff by more than 50 more people as a crisis in ties between Moscow and the West escalated over the nerve agent attack on a former spy.

The new measures came after 23 British diplomats left Russia earlier this month and are seen as Moscow's punishment after Britain's allies expelled Russian diplomats over the March 4 poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in an English city.

"Russia suggested parity. The British side has more than 50 more people," foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told AFP.

In London, a Foreign Office spokeswoman said on Saturday: "We are considering the implication of the measures announced yesterday by the Russian foreign ministry."

The Foreign Office had said it regretted the most recent developments but insisted Russia was the culprit.

"This doesn't change the facts of the matter: the attempted assassination of two people on British soil, for which there is no alternative conclusion other than that the Russian state was culpable," it said.

More than 150 Russian diplomats have been ordered out of the US, EU members, NATO countries and other nations.

In the United States, 60 Russian diplomats expelled by Washington prepared Saturday to leave the country.

In total, 171 people -- diplomats which Washington alleges are "spies" and their families -- were set to leave the United States, Moscow's envoy Anatoly Antonov told Russian reporters in Washington.

The Russian government provided two planes for the evacuation and one of them will make a brief stopover in New York to collect 14 families, he added, according to TASS state news agency.

Britain said Saturday it was considering Moscow's request for consular access to Yulia Skripal, while taking into account her wishes.

The 33-year-old came out of critical care on Thursday and was "improving rapidly", said Salisbury District Hospital.

She is now in a "stable" condition -- with the BBC reporting that she was conscious and talking.

"We are considering requests for consular access in line with our obligations under international and domestic law, including the rights and wishes of Yulia Skripal," a Foreign Office spokeswoman told AFP.

MOSCOW, March 17, 2018 (Reuters) - Russia expelled 23 British diplomats on Saturday in a carefully calibrated retaliatory move against London, which has accused the Kremlin of orchestrating a nerve toxin attack on a former Russian double agent and his daughter in southern England.

Escalating a crisis in relations, Russia said it was also shutting down the activities of the British Council, which fosters cultural links between the two countries, and Britain's consulate-general in St. Petersburg.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said it was giving the 23 British diplomats one week to leave the country.

The move, which was tougher than expected, followed Britain's decision on Wednesday to expel 23 Russian diplomats over the attack in the English city of Salisbury which left former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia Skripal, 33, critically ill in hospital.

Moscow announced the measures on the eve of a presidential election which incumbent Vladimir Putin should comfortably win. Putin has cast his country as a fortress besieged by hostile Western powers with him as its defender, and state media is likely to portray the anti-British move in that context.

The Foreign Ministry said Moscow's measures were a response to what it called Britain's "provocative actions and groundless accusations". It warned London it stood ready to take further measures in the event of more "unfriendly steps".

Relations between London and Moscow have crashed to a post-Cold War low over the Salisbury attack, the first known offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since World War Two.

British Prime Minister Theresa May said Britain would consider its next steps alongside its allies in the coming days.

"We will never tolerate a threat to the life of British citizens and others on British soil from the Russian Government. We can be reassured by the strong support we have received from our friends and allies around the world," May said at the Conservative Party's spring forum in London.

The Russian Foreign Ministry summoned the British ambassador, Laurie Bristow, to a meeting on Saturday morning in central Moscow at its Stalin-era headquarters during which he was informed of the retaliatory measures.

Bristow told reporters afterwards that Britain had only expelled the Russian diplomats after Moscow had failed to explain how the nerve toxin had got to Salisbury.

Britain's foreign ministry said it had anticipated Russia's response and its priority now looking after its staff in Russia and assisting those that will return home.

"Russia’s response doesn’t change the facts of the matter - the attempted assassination of two people on British soil, for which there is no alternative conclusion other than that the Russian State was culpable." it said in a statement.

WAR OF WORDS

Russia's response was more robust than expected. The closure of the British Council's Moscow office will sever cultural ties, while that of the consulate-general in St Petersburg will end Britain's diplomatic presence in Russia's second city.

Russian news agencies cited politicians in Russia's upper house of parliament as welcoming the move to close the British Council, alleging it had been used as a cover by British spies.

The British Council said it was profoundly disappointed by Russia's decision and remained committed to developing long-term people-to-people links with Russia despite the closure.

Russia has complained that Britain has failed to provide any evidence of its involvement in the Salisbury attack and has said it is shocked and bemused by the allegations.

Britain has escalated a war of words with Russia over the incident in recent days. On Friday, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said it was overwhelmingly likely that Russian President Vladimir Putin himself had made the decision to use a military-grade nerve toxin to strike down Skripal.

Britain, the United States, Germany and France have jointly called on Russia to explain the attack, while U.S. President Donald Trump has said it looks as if the Russians were behind it.

Russia has said is open to cooperation with Britain, but has refused Britain's demands to explain how Novichok, a nerve agent developed by the Soviet military, was used against the Skripals.

Skripal, a former colonel in the GRU who betrayed dozens of Russian agents to British intelligence, and his daughter have been critically ill since March 4, when they were found unconscious on a bench.

A British policeman was also poisoned when he went to help them and remains in a serious but stable condition.

Russian investigators said on Friday they had opened a criminal investigation into the attempted murder of Yulia Skripal and offered to cooperate with British authorities.

Russia offered some cooperation to British authorities after the 2006 London murder of ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko too.

Britain said the assistance in that case was not enough, and in 2016, a judge-led inquiry concluded that Putin had probably approved Litvinenko's murder, something Moscow denies.