Roy Gutman writes: Until the beginning of this month, Madaya was an obscure town in southwestern Syria, overshadowed by nearby Zabadani, where opposition rebels had fought a fierce battle against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and more recently Hezbollah. But today, as international relief convoys arrive with food and medicine to lift a starvation siege, Madaya has become the focal point of Syrian aid workers’ anger at the United Nations, who accuse the international body of giving higher priority to its relationship with Damascus than to the fate of Madaya’s beleaguered residents.
Madaya was the worst off of all the besieged towns in Syria, relief workers say. As early as October, locals in the town had been raising alarms about the dire humanitarian situation there. At least six children and 17 adults starved to death in December, and hundreds more risked starvation.
U.N. officials knew this — but until shocking images of starving infants started circulating and news media sounded the alarm, it remained silent, reserving alarm for an unpublished internal memo.
The “Flash Update” issued on Jan. 6 by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which negotiates aid deliveries, spoke of “desperate conditions,” including “severe malnutrition reported across the community,” and said there was an “urgent need” for humanitarian assistance. In October, community leaders reported some 1,000 cases of malnutrition in children under the age of 1, it said.
But the general public could not have known this, because OCHA classified the bulletin as “Internal, Not for Quotation.” OCHA had no immediate comment on why the update, leaked to Foreign Policy, wasn’t published.
The U.N.’s months-long silence on the starvation in Madaya is one of the reasons for the disquiet roiling the community of international and Syrian relief officials. Another is its oft-repeated claim that no one siege is that important but that all should be lifted, a goal that appears beyond reach. When Yacoub el-Hillo, the U.N.’s humanitarian coordinator for Syria, addressed reporters on Jan. 12, a day after leading the first convoy into the town, he described Madaya residents as “a people that are desperate; a people that are cold; a people that are hungry; a people that have almost lost hope” — but he blamed no one in particular for this state of affairs and made no mention of the Lebanese paramilitary group Hezbollah, which in fact is maintaining the siege against Syrian civilians in Madaya.
Instead, he swung into a familiar U.N. litany: The siege of rebel-held Madaya was just like the sieges mounted by the Islamic State or Syrian rebels against government-held regions. [Continue reading…]
Azzam Tamimi writes: Lebanon’s Hezbollah was, until a few years ago, an inspiration to millions of people in the Middle East and around the world. It was a symbol of heroic resistance putting up a long fight to liberate the occupied territories of south Lebanon and continuing to stand up to Israeli aggression post-liberation.
There was a time when Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, was hailed as “master of the resistance”. His pictures were posted all over Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and were treasured by households across the Arab world. When he gave one of his usually long speeches, people were glued to TV sets and his Almanar satellite TV channel was no less popular than Al Jazeera itself. Many Palestinians truly believed Nasrallah was such a great resistance leader and they wished they had someone like him to lead their own resistance.
Yet today Hezbollah has lost much of the popular support and sympathy it once enjoyed and its leader Nasrallah is ridiculed and condemned by many of those who previously adored him. It is fighting a completely different type of war. Acting upon instructions from its sponsors in Tehran, where a reactionary clerical regime reigns, it is fighting a war in defence of a corrupt despotic regime that reigns in Damascus.
Unlike Hezbollah, Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement – which saw itself as a partner of Hezbollah in the struggle against Zionism, refused to bow to pressure from the Iranians. Although Syria was, according to Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, the best haven Hamas ever had outside Palestine, the movement opted to sacrifice all the privileges it had there so as to avoid taking any part in oppressing the Syrian people.
Since leaving Damascus four years ago, Meshaal turned down several invitations from the Iranians to visit Tehran, whose rulers made his visit a precondition for the resumption of any financial aid. Undoubtedly, the Syrian crisis drove deep a wedge between Hamas on the one hand and Hezbollah and Iran on the other. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: Nisrine kept teaching school for months as the siege tightened around the Syrian town of Madaya, but had to give up a few weeks ago when her students got too weak to walk to class. A local medic has been surviving on the rehydration salts he gives patients, while a business school graduate picks grass to make soup for his 70-year-old father, consulting shepherds about which ones their long-since-slaughtered flocks liked best.
A dozen women waited anxiously in their doorways one recent evening as an antigovernment activist named Firas trudged slowly up their street handing out small batches of smuggled bulgur wheat.
Firas, though, was in shock. He had taken a meal to the house of Suleiman Fares, 63 and bone-thin, in hopes of saving his life, only to find him already dead. Frustrated, Firas declared that far to the north, rebels allied with those in Madaya ought to resume shelling two pro-government towns — towns full of civilians who are also suffering, tit for tat, a siege from the other side.
“Better to die fighting,” he said that night in one of a series of recent telephone interviews, “than to starve.”
The people of Madaya and neighboring Zabadani have tried, since the siege by pro-government forces began in July, to keep society functioning and adjust to their surreal new set of dynamics. There is the black market across blockade lines, for instance, and the quiet or unexpected ways this type of warfare can kill: heart attacks, stillbirths, a step on a land mine while foraging for food.
And there is the relentless physical and psychological contraction of their communities, only an hour’s drive from Damascus, Syria, and two from Beirut yet suddenly sealed off from the outside world. [Continue reading…]
Reuters reports: Residents of a besieged Syrian town have told U.N. investigators how the weakest in their midst, deprived of food and medicines in violation of international law, are suffering starvation and death, the top U.N. war crimes investigator told Reuters on Tuesday.
An aid convoy on Monday brought the first food and medical relief for three months to the western town of Madaya, where 40,000 people are trapped by encircling government forces.
Another United Nations official who oversaw the aid delivery described on Tuesday how he saw malnourished residents, particularly children, some of whom were little more than skeletons and barely moving.
The U.N. commission of inquiry documenting war crimes in Syria has been in direct contact with residents inside Madaya, the commission’s chairman Paulo Pinheiro said in an emailed reply to Reuters questions.
“They have provided detailed information on shortages of food, water, qualified physicians, and medicine. This has led to acute malnutrition and deaths among vulnerable groups in the town.” he said in the email sent from his native Brazil.
The U.N. inquiry, composed of independent experts, has long denounced use of starvation by both sides in the Syrian conflict as a weapon of war, and has a confidential list of suspected war criminals and units from all sides which is kept in a U.N. safe in Geneva. [Continue reading…]
The Daily Beast reports: Lebanese Hezbollah field commanders with troops fighting in Syria tell The Daily Beast they are receiving heavy weapons directly from Russia with no strings attached. The commanders say there is a relationship of complete coordination between the Assad regime in Damascus, Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia. At the same time they say the direct interdependence between Russia and Hezbollah is increasing.
The United States and the European Union have both listed Hezbollah as a terrorist organization with global reach and accuse it of serving Tehran’s interests. But there is more to it than that. Organized, trained, funded, and armed by Iran with Syrian help after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, it initially gained fame for suicide bombings hitting Israeli, French, and American targets there, including the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut where 241 American servicemen were killed in 1983.
Over the years Hezbollah grew to be a parallel army in Lebanon, stronger than the national military, and for years it was regarded in much of the Arab world as the avant-garde of the fight against Israeli occupation of Lebanese territory. It also developed into the most powerful political party in the fractured Lebanese parliamentary system. But its reputation as a nationalist force has been tarnished since it began fighting in Syria to defend the Assad regime, and as The Daily Beast reported in December, some of its soldiers have refused to go back.
The Daily Beast met the commanders on separate occasions at the end of December and the beginning of this year in Dahiya, a majority Shia working-class southern suburb of Beirut. They declined to use their real names because they are not authorized to speak to the media, but both say Hezbollah is directly receiving long-range tactical missiles, laser guided rockets, and anti-tank weapons from Russia. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: In the hills near the Lebanese border, an hour’s drive from downtown Damascus, much of a Syrian town is starving, according to residents and international humanitarian workers.
The town, Madaya, is controlled by rebels and encircled by pro-government forces with barbed wire, land mines and snipers. People there make soups of grass, spices and olive leaves. They eat donkeys and cats. They arrive, collapsing, at a clinic that offers little but rehydration salts. Neighbors fail to recognize neighbors in the streets because their faces are so sunken.
Syria, once classified as a middle-income country, now reports periodic malnutrition deaths. At least 28 people, including six babies, have died from hunger-related causes at a clinic in Madaya aided by Doctors Without Borders, medics there say. And the 42,000 people that the United Nations counts as trapped in Madaya are about a tenth of those stranded in besieged or hard-to-reach areas as conditions grow steadily worse.
Their plight represents a stark failure of international powers that has worsened even as they intensify military and diplomatic activities, all in the name of resolving the conflict.
This is happening as the United Nations plans a new round of peace talks for Jan. 25. It is happening amid escalating military interventions by Russia and the United States. And in some ways, according to diplomats and humanitarian workers, it is happening not just despite those efforts, but also because of them, as the warring parties flout international law while being courted for negotiations.
Yet in Madaya and neighboring Zabadani, once popular mountain resorts, thoughts of political change have receded in the face of hunger. Hamoudi, 27, a business-school graduate who took up arms after the government’s crackdown on protests in 2011, said many people would surrender in order to eat, even though they expected arrests and retribution to follow.
“In the revolution I was dreaming of democracy, freedom,” Hamoudi said slowly in an interview via Skype, exhaustion evident in his voice. “Today all my dreams are food. I want to eat. I don’t want to die from starvation.” [Continue reading…]
CNN reports: Evidence of an unfolding famine in the Syrian city of Madaya continues to mount, with the international rights group Amnesty International publishing accounts of people trying to survive on boiled water and leaves.
Except that now that it’s winter, the leaves are gone.
Even more chilling is the idea that Madaya may not be the exception in Syria today, after nearly five years of civil war: It might be representative of an ongoing catastrophe of larger proportions.
“These harrowing accounts of hunger represent the tip of an iceberg,” said Philip Luther, the Middle East and North Africa director for Amnesty International. “Syrians are suffering and dying across the country because starvation is being used as a weapon of war by both the Syrian government and armed groups.”
Luther accused both sides of “toying with the lives of hundreds of thousands of people,” and noted that starving civilians as a tactic in warfare is a war crime. [Continue reading…]
The hashtag #متضامن_مع_حصار_مضايا, meaning “solidarity with the siege of Madaya”, has sparked a new wave of outrage over the continuing crisis, with those using it condemned as “sadistic” and “unbelievably disgusting”.
Photos showed people posting with sumptuous-looking spreads of food including kebabs, grilled prawns, whole fish, chips, salad and mountains of bread. [Continue reading…]
Lina Khatib writes: Horrific images and stories of starving children have suddenly flooded the media as the reality of life in the town of Madaya in Syria, besieged by Syrian regime sources and Hezbollah, has surfaced. But what is perhaps more shocking than the images is how the deliberate targeting of the population of Madaya has been taking place since July 2015 without the international community noticing.
This is despite activists in Madaya desperately trying to direct global attention to the atrocities committed there by the Syrian regime and its ally Hezbollah. It is only when the situation in Madaya reached the level of mass starvation that the international media have paid attention.
The Syrian regime and Hezbollah have put Madaya under siege for more than six months now as a response to the siege of the northern towns of Fua and Kefraya by anti-regime forces. In besieging Madaya and neighbouring Zabadani on the Lebanese border, the regime is trying to pressure its rebel opponents to agree to a population transfer between the two sets of towns that would consolidate regime control over Syrian towns bordering Lebanon. The regime’s plan is to empty Zabadani and Madaya from Sunni residents and populate them with Shia who would be brought in from Fua and Kefraya. This “sectarian cleansing” would allow the Shia Hezbollah to consolidate its control over areas serving as supply lines for regime strongholds in Damascus and the Syrian coast (the Sahel) as well as for Hezbollah itself. [Continue reading…]
Hezbollah (“Party of God”) now seen as “Party of (forced) starvation”:
— فؤاد حلاق (@Fouadhallak89) January 8, 2016
— Elijah J. Magnier (@EjmAlrai) January 7, 2016
— IDF (@IDFSpokesperson) November 20, 2012
Phillip Smyth writes: Ever since Tehran started beating the drum over Nimr, its Shiite Islamist proxies across the Middle East have followed suit.
In early January 2015, Kataib Hezbollah, an Iraqi Shiite militia and Iran proxy group listed by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization, released a propaganda song that threatened the Saudis with an attack if they carried out the sentenced execution. The tune also included the rare addition of English translations and was likely aimed at Western, particularly American, audiences. The song blared, “The enemies of God will not be safe.… Ali’s [Shiite Islam’s first imam’s] enemies fear him [Nimr].… We will avenge Sheikh Nimr if he is executed.… Our brigades will roar like a lion.”
It wasn’t the only time that Kataib Hezbollah would threaten Saudi Arabia over Nimr’s fate. In March, the Iraqi militia posted another video showing trucks loaded with rockets and balaclava-wearing armed militiamen driving up to the Iraqi-Saudi border.
Iran’s other proxies in the region have adopted a similar stance. Starting in July, Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada, another Iranian-sponsored Shiite militia in Iraq, ran a promotional video to show support for Nimr, and Lebanese Hezbollah pushed solidarity campaigns for the Saudi cleric.
Following Nimr’s execution, Iran’s allies in the region issued nearly matching statements condemning Saudi Arabia and at times blaming the United States for the cleric’s death. Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraq’s Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the Badr Organization, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, Kataib Hezbollah, and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada are just some of the Iranian-backed and ideologically loyal Shiite militias that toed Iran’s line on the issue.
The Iraqi Shiite militias loyal to Iran claimed they would retaliate against Saudi Arabia at a time and place of their choosing. Kataib Hezbollah later announced that the execution had given it the “green light” to target Saudi interests in Iraq. These Iran proxies also amplified threats by shadowy organizations: Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, an Iraqi Shiite militia and Iran proxy active in Iraq and Syria, for instance, claimed that an otherwise unspecified “Resistance in Qatif” had threatened to attack the Ras Tanura refinery, an important oil port in Saudi Arabia’s majority Shiite Eastern Province.
The campaign has not simply been limited to mere threats. In mid-December, around 26 Qatari hunters — some of whom are members of the Qatari royal family — were kidnapped by some 100 armed men on the Iraq-Saudi border. While nine were released, the rest are still being held by the gunmen. One of the conditions for the detained Qataris’ release had been the Saudi government’s release of Nimr. (Kataib Hezbollah has been accused of kidnapping the Qataris, but has denied it.)
These messages are part and parcel of Tehran’s geopolitical strategy — a way of asserting that it can and will protect its Shiite coreligionists. The fact that the factions of the Shiite “Islamic Resistance” across the Middle East acted as one further demonstrates Iranian power and the Islamic Resistance’s ability and willingness to project power on behalf of Iran’s regional goals. [Continue reading…]
Alex Rowell writes: Lebanon’s Prime Minister Tammam Salam may have declared himself hopeful for positive change in 2016, but if the year continues in the vein of its first five days, he appears destined for disappointment. The execution by Saudi Arabia of leading Shiite cleric and opposition activist, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the subsequent torching of the Saudi embassy in Tehran, which in turn led Riyadh and a number of its allies to sever or downgrade diplomatic relations with Iran, had by Tuesday escalated into bloodshed, with Sunni mosques bombed and a muezzin gunned down by suspected Shiite militants in Iraq; a Shiite resident of Saudi’s eastern province also fatally shot; and a reported intensification of Saudi air strikes on Shiite rebel targets in Yemen.
In Lebanon, no violence has yet broken out, but the political atmosphere has been considerably poisoned. On Sunday, Tehran ally Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah gave an extraordinarily foul-tempered speech, going far further in criticisms of Saudi Arabia than he ever has previously. Likening the “takfiri and terrorist” state to both ISIS and Israel, he accused the ruling family of being a mass-murdering agent of Western imperialism and Zionism, drawing multiple outbursts of “Death to the Saud family!” chants from the crowd. In an unabashedly sectarian analogy, he compared Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr to the Prophet’s granddaughter, Zainab bint Ali, “speaking truth to Ibn Ziad and Yazid bin Mu`awiya,” thereby overtly tying the controversy into a 1,300-year-old Sunni-Shiite conflict.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, officials from Hezbollah’s main Lebanese rival, the Saudi-backed Future Movement, told NOW the new state of affairs would complicate the resolution of various pressing matters, including the twenty-month-long presidential vacuum. [Continue reading…]
Vice News reports: In the early hours of Sunday morning, a pregnant woman and her daughter tried to sneak out of Madaya, a mountain village perched in the snow-capped peaks of southwestern Syria.
As they reached the southern edge of town, someone tripped over a landmine, and the loud blast alerted a nearby Hezbollah checkpoint of their escape. The fighters opened fire, and between the explosion and the barrage, both mother and daughter died.
Desperate escape attempts like this one — which was reported by the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and confirmed to VICE News by local residents — have become more and more common in Madaya, a village of 40,000 that’s been under siege since July by a combination of Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and his ally, the Lebanese militia Hezbollah.
In the past month alone, 31 residents have died from starvation, or in attempts to run the Hezbollah-manned blockade that encircles the town. A report compiled by the Syrian-American Medical Society and made available to VICE News found that a kilogram (two pounds)of flour now retails for around $100, while the average Syrian makes less than $200 each month.
“I had strawberry leaves for dinner today,” Rajai, a 26-year old English and math teacher in Madaya, told VICE News by phone, asking that his name be withheld for security reasons. “I haven’t had a real meal in three months.” Since the siege began in July, he’s lost 50 pounds. “Kids are eating leaves off the trees, and the very old and very young are dying,” he said.
As the death toll mounted in December, residents of Madaya began posting desperate pleas on social media, along with disturbing images, reminiscent of Nazi concentration camps. [Continue reading…]
Joyce Karam writes: On February 25, 1987, late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad sent his troops to the Fathallah barracks in West Beirut, where they killed twenty-seven members of Hezbollah in a move designed to show Syria’s upper hand over Iran in Lebanon. Almost three decades later, this modus operandi is completely reversed under Assad the son, as Syria sinks into a war of attrition and Tehran gains the upper hand in Damascus.
For Iran, Bashar al-Assad has been a valuable ally but not an indispensable one. His coming to power in 2000, followed by the Iraq war in 2003 and Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005, freed Iran’s hand in the Levant. Hezbollah under Bashar al-Assad has received weaponry and political backing unthinkable in his father’s time, including long-range Scud missiles and a 2010 Damascus visit by the party’s chief Hassan Nasrallah. But while Tehran has worked since the beginning of the Syrian war in 2011 to prolong Assad’s hold on power, it has also planned from the very early stages of the conflict for the day after, should its ally fall or should the regime lose Damascus.
Even as Iran sits at the negotiating table in Vienna, its strategy overlooks the political debate and the successive failed processes. It is instead rooted in creating new realities and proxies on the ground in Syria, looking beyond Assad and preserving its core interests. These interests are defined today by three goals: (1) Ensuring arms shipments continue to Hezbollah; (2) Gaining a strategic foothold in Levant and against Israel; (3) Preventing a stable government opposed to Iran from fully ruling over Syria. [Continue reading…]
According to Hezbollah’s Al-Manar, Samir Qantar, a Lebanese commander who had become a high-profile figure in the group, was killed by an Israeli airstrike in Damascus on Saturday.
Israeli officials welcomed the news but did not confirm responsibility for the attack.
While Hezbollah had no hesitation in accusing Israel, as Raed Omari notes, Syrian officials have been more circumspect:
Remarkably enough, the Syrian account of the incident resembled to a greater degree that of Israel – no confirmation and no refuting.
But the Syrian statements on Qantar’s killing were worded with a heavy Russian military presence in the background and they were inseparable from new political developments on Syria and the new international coalitions in the making.
It can’t be that the Israelis launched an airstrike on Syria now without coordination with their Russian allies who now control Syria’s airspace. And if the Syrians confirmed that Israeli jets killed Qantar, then they would appear as either having prior knowledge of the plan or have no sovereignty over their country.
Who actually killed the 54-year-old Qantar? In my opinion, Israel is a likely perpetrator but the question is how its jets flew over Syria now without being spotted by the Russian satellites and space power. The Russian silence on the incident is also worth-noting.
Meanwhile, a Syrian rebel group has released a statement claiming that they were responsible for Qantar’s death.
The New York Times quotes a Druze militia group that said the building which was targeted had been hit by “four long-range missiles.”
An Israeli columnist quotes “Western sources” claiming that Qantar was a “ticking bomb.”
The sources said Kuntar had recently not been working on behalf of Hezbollah, but rather acting with increasing independence alongside pro-Assad militias in Syria.
The attack in Damascus comes at a moment when, according to Israeli sources, “Iran has withdrawn most of the Revolutionary Guards fighters it deployed to Syria three months ago.”
Assuming that this was indeed an Israeli airstrike, it appears to have not only been aimed at an individual, but also intended to send some additional messages: that Israel is not unduly constrained by Russia’s air operations in Syria and that the Hezbollah fighters propping up the Assad regime are more expendable than their Iranian counterparts.
Creede Newton writes:
Regardless of who fired the missile, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Hezbollah, has already made his decision: this was Israel. Now, the question is, how will Nasrallah respond to another high-level assassination?
Some think Hezbollah’s falling popularity with the Sunni majority in the Middle East due to its meddling in the Syrian conflict could use a boost, and a conflict with Israel would help.
Others say Hezbollah is stretched, and a war with the powerful Israeli military is the last thing the Shia group needs.
Nicholas Blanford writes:
The current situation mirrors the immediate aftermath of an Israeli pilotless drone strike on 18 January in the Golan that killed Jihad Mughniyeh — son of former Hezbollah military commander Imad Mughniyeh — an Iranian general and five other Hezbollah fighters. Hezbollah struck back 10 days later with an anti-tank missile ambush against an Israeli army convoy at the foot of the Shebaa Farms hills, killing an officer and a soldier.
Following the ambush, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah said in a speech that the rules of engagement that had defined the tit-for-tat conflict between Hezbollah and Israel were over.
“From now on, if any Hezbollah resistance cadre or youth is killed in a treacherous manner, we will hold Israel responsible and it will then be our right to respond at any place and at any time and in the manner we deem appropriate,” he said.
Nasrallah is due to speak Monday night and will probably reaffirm that commitment, which will ensure a state of tension along Israel’s northern border in the coming days.
The concept of reciprocity is a cornerstone of Hezbollah’s defense strategy against Israel, which may offer a clue as to the party’s response to Kuntar’s assassination. In the years following the 2006 War, Nasrallah has articulated on several occasions Hezbollah’s strategy of retaliating in kind for Israeli actions against Lebanon in a future conflict — if Israel bombs Beirut, Hezbollah bombs Tel Aviv; if Israel blockades Lebanese ports, Hezbollah will blockade Israeli ports with its long-range anti-ship missiles; if Israel invades Lebanon, Hezbollah will invade Galilee.
Even on a tactical level, Hezbollah has sought to achieve reciprocity against Israel. In October 2014, Hezbollah mounted a roadside bomb ambush in the Shebaa Farms that wounded two Israeli soldiers in response to the death a month earlier of a party military technician who died when a booby-trapped Israeli wire-tapping device exploded.
The January anti-tank missile attack against the Israeli convoy in the Shebaa Farms also sought to echo Israel’s deadly drone missile strike in the Golan 10 days earlier.
“They killed us in broad daylight, we killed them in broad daylight… They hit two of our vehicles, we hit two of their vehicles,” Nasrallah said at the time.