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Russia Sends Warships to Mediterranean

By James Brooke (VOA-Moscow)

For the last year, the Russian government has tried to project an image of neutrality in the increasingly bloody conflict in Syria. Now, it may be sending a signal of support to its longtime ally, President Bashar al-Assad, by sending warships to the area. Russia may also want to protect its forces at its Tartus naval base.

A flotilla of Russian Navy ships set sail Tuesday for the Mediterranean, where Russia maintains a small base at Tartus, Syria. A destroyer and three landing ships left the Arctic port of Severomorsk. A second destroyer left Russia's base at Sevastopol, Ukraine. And Interfax reported that more warships from the Baltic Fleet, based in St. Petersburg, are preparing to join the flotilla.

The warships set sail the day after Russia's President Vladimir Putin accused the West of "missile bomb democracy." In a key policy speech to top Russian diplomats gathered in Moscow, he accused the West of using deception to gain political advantage. "This can be seen from the so-called humanitarian operations, from exports of the `missile-bomb' democracy, and intervention in internal conflicts, including those bred by the `Arab spring'," said the president.

Putin's hard-line rhetoric came as Syrian opposition groups have come to Moscow to lobby the Kremlin to stop supporting Syria's President Assad. While briefing reporters, Basma Kodmani, a member of the executive bureau of the Syrian National Council, appealed to Russia to help Syrians turn the page and switch to a new democratic system. The Kremlin and Syria's opposition share common ground - a fear of chaos, anarchy and religious radicalism, she said.

During the Assad family's 40-year rule of Syria, thousands of Syrians studied in Moscow and many married Russians. Munzer Mahos, a member of the Syrian National Committee, started to speak in Russian to reporters before switching to Arabic. "We consider Russia our friend, our historical ally. The former Soviet Union and now Russia have done a lot for us. We have maintained a long-time solid friendship, so this is not about pushing Russia aside," he said.

On Wednesday, the Syrian opposition members are to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The Syrians said they would not ask Russia to give asylum to President Assad and his family. One opposition member, Mahmoud al-Hamza, told reporters that the opposition National Council opposes granting asylum to the Syrian president. He charged that Assad "has stained his hands with the blood of the Syrian people." Russian diplomats say the Syrian president has not asked for asylum. They say that Russia's relations with Syria are not tied to the Assad family remaining in power.

But, with Russian navy ships from three Russian fleets now steaming toward Syria's coast, the Kremlin seems to be sending a clear signal that it will stand by Assad.

Pentagon: Iran Improving Missiles to Target Vessels


The Iranian army is continuing to improve the accuracy and destructive power of its long-and-short-range ballistic missile force, according to a Pentagon report that was submitted to the US Congress. The report, which was obtained by Bloomberg News, said that as part of the improvements, Iran's military is designing a maneuvering weapon to target vessels.

The June 29 report, which was signed by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, states that Tehran "has boosted the lethality and effectiveness of existing systems by improving accuracy and developing new submunition payloads" that extend the destructive power over a broader area than a solid warhead.

According to Bloomberg, the report found that the improvements are in tandem with routine ballistic- missile training that "continues throughout the country" and the addition of "new ships and submarines." It said the report also addresses the Islamic Republic's nuclear program and the assistance it offers to Syria, Hizbullah, Hamas and Iraqi Shiite groups. It also repeated the US assessment that Iran with "sufficient foreign assistance may be technically capable of flight-testing" an intercontinental ballistic missile by 2015.

"There was a theme that Iran is improving the accuracy and lethality of its missiles," Bloomberg quoted Congressional Research Service Iran analyst Kenneth Katzman as saying. "US government reports have previously always downplayed the accuracy and effectiveness of Iran's missile forces."

The Pentagon's report predicted that Iran "would present a formidable force while defending Iranian territory."We assess with high confidence" that over the past 30 years Iran "has methodically cultivated a network of sponsored terrorist surrogates capable of targeting US and Israeli interests. We suspect this activity continues," it said.

The report further claimed that the Islamic Republic is continuing to develop ballistic missiles capable of reaching regional adversaries, Israel and Eastern Europe, including an extended-range Shahab-3 and a 2,000 kilometer (1,240 mile) medium-range ballistic missile.

Peres Under Fire for Anti-Settlement Comments


President Shimon Peres came under fire on Tuesday for criticizing the Jewish settlement enterprise in Judea and Samaria and saying it threatened Israel's Jewish majority.

Peres, who spoke during a memorial ceremony for the founder of Zionism, Binyamin Ze'ev Herzl, said, "Israeli settlement in territories that are densely populated with Arab population, which followed their attacks on us, can lead to a threatening demographic change. That is, a risk to the Jewish majority in Israel."

He added, "A Jewish state without a Jewish majority will probably not remain Jewish. National independence in a democratic country requires maintaining a Jewish majority, and national identity in a multicultural world requires maintaining the spiritual uniqueness of the Jewish people."

His comments were criticized by nationalists. Knesset member Uri Ariel (National Union), head of the State Control Committee, responded to the speech by saying, "Unfortunately, the president has again missed the mark with an unfortunate statement that is hurtful to large sectors of the public. This is a controversial statement from the `new Middle East' school of thought, and it is harmful first and foremost to the institution of the presidency, which is dedicated to preserving national unity."

The head of the Yesha council, Danny Dayan, said Peres was wrong in his remarks, noting that "The only danger that faces Israel as a Jewish state today is the loss of faith in our historic right to our land. It's bizarre that the president chose to bring up his prophecies of despair at the memorial for Binyamin Ze'ev Herzl – the symbol of commitment to a vision in the face of all those who despaired."

In Israel, the role of president is a purely ceremonial one and not a political one, but Peres has been Israel's most political president to date, and has been accused of seeing himself as a de-facto foreign minister once again, as he was during the late Yitzchak Rabin's term of office when he engineered the disastrous Oslo Accords.

Peres has reportedly met in secret with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in the hopes of advancing his personal agenda of restarting peace negotiations. His comments on settlement in Judea and Samaria came following the publication of a report which states that Judea and Samaria are not "occupied territories."

The committee, which was headed by retired Supreme Court justice Edmund Levy, concluded that from a historical and legal prospective and considering agreements with the Palestinian Authority, the international law against "occupation" does not apply to Judea and Samaria.

It noted that Jordan's assumed sovereignty over most of Judea and Samaria after the 1948 War for Independence was not legally recognized by the international community, meaning that Israel did not "occupy" the same land during the Six Day War in 1967.

US Ignores Israeli Terror Victims at Global Conference


Israel is one of the most prominent targets for terror, and the number of Israeli victims of terror is one of the highest in the world, but the United States' Obama Administration did not even mention the country at a global anti-terror conference.

Maria Otero, U.S. Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, noted terror victims in several countries in a speech in Madrid on Monday, but she omitted Israel.

Speaking at the opening session of the Global Counterterrorism Forum High-Level Conference on Victims of Terrorism, she said, "Around the world, terrorists make their mark on the world through acts of hate. They proclaim their values with a deep and disturbing indifference to human life."

Otero noted that terror victims can serve as spokesmen for targeted countries, adding that "the United States and so many countries around the world," have experienced the pain of terror. She did not mention Israel.

Otero added, "Last September at the official launch of the Global Counterterrorism Forum, I had the privilege to introduce the premier of a film `Hear their Voices,' which tells the stories of 11 survivors of terrorist attacks from Pakistan, Jordan, Northern Ireland, Uganda, Turkey, Indonesia, India, Spain, Columbia and the United States. "

Israel was not mentioned nor did Otero refer to the Jewish state. This was not the first time the United States has forgotten that Israel hosts one of the highest per capita populations victimized by terror.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed a Global Counterterrorism event in Istanbul last month and referred to terror in "Turkey, Mali, Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria, the Maghreb and Europe. She also commented on terrorist kidnappings in Latin America – but no mention was made of Israel, even though it suffered the fifth highest terror deaths of any country between 1968 and 2006, according to the Christian News Service.

The United States agreed with other Global Counterterrorism countries to keep Israel out of the event. The omission of Israel did not escape the attention of Matt Lee of the Associated Press, who asked State Dept, spokesman Patrick Ventrell why Israel was not mentioned by Otero.

"Does the Administration believe that Israel and Israelis specifically have been victims of terrorism?" he asked. `Ventrell answered, "Of course."

Saudi Organization Launches Overseas Marriage Initiative


A Saudi organization launched an initiative that aims at encouraging Saudi men inside the kingdom to marry Saudi girls living abroad in an attempt to counter the rise of marriages with foreigners, Al-Arabiya news reported.

Chairman of the Charitable Society for the Care of Saudi Families Abroad, Tawfik al-Suwailem, called upon Saudi youth to consider marrying their female compatriots who live abroad instead of engaging in what he called "random marriages," in reference to the phenomenon of marrying foreign women, which is said to increase significantly during the summer, when Saudis go on holidays.

"Unlike marrying a foreigner, a Saudi man won't need a permit from the Ministry of Interior when marrying a Saudi living abroad," Suwailem was quoted as saying by the Saudi newspaper al-Hayat, adding that there are several advantages of marrying Saudi women living abroad. "The bride and the groom will have a similar social background and the same traditions. Plus, this kind of marriages would encourage those girls to come back to Saudi Arabia."

Suwailem warned Saudi men of marriage brokers abroad who take advantage of rich youth and marry them to foreigners. "Brokers who work in both Arab and Western countries make a lot of money through marrying Saudi men to foreign women," he said. In addition, he added, many of those youth marry foreigners abroad without getting the necessary permit from the kingdom. "So, they end up also violating Saudi laws."

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