Amid Syrian chaos, Iran’s game plan emerges: A path to the Mediterranean

Martin Chulov reports: Not far from Mosul, a large military force is finalising plans for an advance that has been more than three decades in the making. The troops are Shia militiamen who have fought against the Islamic State, but they have not been given a direct role in the coming attack to free Iraq’s second city from its clutches.

Instead, while the Iraqi army attacks Mosul from the south, the militias will take up a blocking position to the west, stopping Isis forces from fleeing towards their last redoubt of Raqqa in Syria. Their absence is aimed at reassuring the Sunni Muslims of Mosul that the imminent recapture of the city is not a sectarian push against them. However, among Iraq’s Shia-dominated army the militia’s decision to remain aloof from the battle of Mosul is being seen as a rebuff.

Yet among the militias’ backers in Iran there is little concern. Since their inception, the Shia irregulars have made their name on the battlefields of Iraq, but they have always been central to Tehran’s ambitions elsewhere. By not helping to retake Mosul, the militias are free to drive one of its most coveted projects – securing an arc of influence across Iraq and Syria that would end at the Mediterranean Sea.

The strip of land to the west of Mosul in which the militias will operate is essential to that goal. After 12 years of conflict in Iraq and an even more savage conflict in Syria, Iran is now closer than ever to securing a land corridor that will anchor it in the region – and potentially transform the Islamic Republic’s presence on Arab lands. “They have been working extremely hard on this,” said a European official who has monitored Iran’s role in both wars for the past five years. “This is a matter of pride for them on one hand and pragmatism on the other. They will be able to move people and supplies between the Mediterranean and Tehran whenever they want, and they will do so along safe routes that are secured by their people, or their proxies.”

Interviews during the past four months with regional officials, influential Iraqis and residents of northern Syria have established that the land corridor has slowly taken shape since 2014. It is a complex route that weaves across Arab Iraq, through the Kurdish north, into Kurdish north-eastern Syria and through the battlefields north of Aleppo, where Iran and its allies are prevailing on the ground. It has been assembled under the noses of friend and foe, the latter of which has begun to sound the alarm in recent weeks. Turkey has been especially opposed, fearful of what such a development means for Iran’s relationship with the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ party), the restive Kurds in its midst, on whom much of the plan hinges. [Continue reading…]

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In fight for Aleppo, Assad’s side is just as fragmented as his opponents

The New York Times reports: The Syrian civil war, and the intense new ground battle in the divided city of Aleppo, is often seen as a contest between a chaotic array of rebel groups and the Russian-backed government of President Bashar al-Assad. But the reality is that Mr. Assad’s side is increasingly just as fragmented as its opponents, a panoply of forces aligned partly along sectarian lines but with often-competing approaches and interests.

There are Iraqi Shiite militiamen cheering for clerics who liken the enemy to foes from seventh-century battles. There are Iranian Revolutionary Guards fighting on behalf of a Shiite theocracy. There are Afghan refugees hoping to gain citizenship in Iran, and Hezbollah militants whose leaders have long vowed to fight “wherever needed.”

The Syrians themselves are in a few elite units from an army steeped in a nominally socialist, Arab nationalist ideology, exhausted after five years of war, as well as pro-government militias that pay better salaries. And, yes, overhead there are the Russian pilots who have relentlessly bombed the rebel-held eastern side of Aleppo — trained to see the battle as supporting a secular government against Islamist extremist terrorists.

“The government’s fighting force today consists of a dizzying array of hyper-local militias aligned with various factions, domestic and foreign sponsors, and local warlords,” said one analyst, Tobias Schneider, in recently summing up the situation.

The battle for eastern Aleppo, where the United Nations says some 275,000 people are besieged, has raised tensions between the United States and Russia to their highest levels in years, but the Cold War rivals do not wield clear control over their nominal proxies. The competing interests on both sides and lack of clear leadership on either one is part of why the fighting has proved so hard to stop: Mr. Assad is desperate to retain power, Moscow is seeking to increase its clout at the global geopolitical table, and Iran is exercising its regional muscle.

While Washington and Moscow say preservation of Syrian state institutions is a priority, a look at the fight for Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, shows that those structures are already atrophying.

At least one elite Syrian Army unit has been filmed seizing positions in Aleppo, but the bulk of the pro-government force is made up militiamen trained and financed by Iran, the Shiite theocracy that is the Syrian government’s closest ally, according to experts, diplomats, regional officials and fighters battling for and against the government.

“Aleppo is Shiite, and she wants her people,” goes a song overlaid onto a video posted online of an Iraqi cleric visiting Iraqi Shiite militia fighters on the front lines south of Aleppo. The message ignores the fact that the mainstream Shiite sect that accounts for the bulk of the Iraqi militias makes up less than 1 percent of Syria’s population. [Continue reading…]

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Sectarian fighters mass for battle to capture east Aleppo

The Guardian reports: As the most intensive air bombardment of the war has rained down on opposition-held east Aleppo this week, an army of some 6,000 pro-government fighters has gathered on its outskirts for what they plan will be an imminent, decisive advance.

Among those poised to attack are hundreds of Syrian troops who have eyed the city from distant fixed positions since it was seized by Syrian rebels in mid-2012.

But in far greater numbers are an estimated 5,000 foreign fighters who will play a defining role in the battle – and take a lead stake in what emerges from the ruins.

The coming showdown for Aleppo is a culmination of plans made far from the warrooms of Damascus. Shia Islamic fighters have converged on the area from Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and Afghanistan to prepare for a clash that they see as a pre-ordained holy war that will determine the future of the region. [Continue reading…]

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Syrian opposition official: ‘Assad is no longer at risk… he has won’

Martin Chulov reports: Just over a month into Syria’s uprising in 2011, the leader of Lebanon’s Druze sect, Walid Jumblatt, travelled to Damascus to visit Syria’s then security tsar, Mohammed Nasif. As well as being the Assad family’s most trusted senior official, he was also the linchpin of Syria’s close ties with Iran and Hezbollah, a man bound more than most to the fate of the regime.

“He said to me at the time, it’s either us, meaning the Alawites, or them, meaning the Sunnis,” Jumblatt recalled. “I knew which way this was going then. He added, ‘even if it cost us a million dead’.”

More than five years later, the toll in the now raging war is well past a quarter of that estimate – international monitors stopped counting last August. The sectarian dimension to the fighting foreshadowed by Nasif is a reality. So is the destruction of much of the country, including the ancient city of Aleppo, which after years of being viewed as the key to Syria’s fate last week slipped from the grasp of the opposition and into the hands of the Syrian regime’s allies, led by Hezbollah.

The encirclement of Aleppo is a significant moment in a war that has led to more unrestrained savagery, international repercussions and unlikely alliances than most others in modern times. Another emerged last week, as Hezbollah and Syrian troops were beating back the al-Qaida-aligned Jabhat al-Nusra from farmlands to the north of the city. As that battle raged, the US was drafting a deal with Russia that would create a joint operations centre to coordinate attacks on al-Nusra and Islamic State.

The move has created despair among the ranks of the Syrian opposition, which insists that a pact between Moscow and Washington will entrench the Syrian leader, whom Russia and Iran have saved from defeat over the past 12 months. Adding to the alarm of the now diminished rebel ranks is a detente, also signed during the week, between Moscow and Ankara, after a seven-month standoff, as well as the Turkish prime minister’s remarks that Ankara was interested in peace with Damascus.

“This all means that Assad is no longer at risk,” said a senior official in the western-backed Syrian opposition. “This means that he has won.” [Continue reading…]

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Following reports that Hezbollah might reduce its forces in Syria, Nasrallah promises to boost support for Assad

Middle East Eye reports: Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah on Friday said his Lebanese Shia movement would boost its support for Syria’s government after one of its top commanders was killed there last week.

“We will increase and bolster our presence in Syria,” Nasrallah said in a speech during a ceremony to mark a week since Mustafa Badreddine, the head of Hezbollah’s military wing, was killed near Damascus.

“More commanders than before will go to Syria. We will be present in different ways and we will continue the fight,” he said.

Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria was considered vital in shoring up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government earlier in the more than five-year war against opposition rebels backed by Gulf Arab states and Western countries.

Its fighters secured most of the Lebanese border region, cutting vital rebel supply lines, and reasserted government control in most of the southern suburbs of Damascus, including the Sayyida Zeinab Shia shrine district.

Hezbollah said last week that Badreddine had been killed by rebel artillery fire, with Nasrallah on Friday vowing to avenge his death by inflicting a “great and final defeat” on those responsible.

But the circumstances of Badreddine’s death remain unclear with earlier media reports citing Israeli security sources that he may have been killed by Syrian pro-government or Iranian forces in a dispute over Hezbollah’s role in the conflict.

According to those reports, Badreddine had been planning to withdraw many of Hezbollah’s forces back to Lebanon after suffering heavy losses, possibly a third of his fighters. The area where he was killed is technically under the control of the Syrian army and is also believed to host Iranian fighters. [Continue reading…]

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How the Syrian Revolution transformed this Palestinian activist

Budour Hassan is a law school graduate and freelance writer based in Jerusalem who contributes to Al Jazeera, Electronic Intifada, Middle East Eye, and elesewhere. She writes:

The world revolves around Palestine, or so I thought until 2011.

The Palestinian cause, I argued, was the litmus test for anyone’s commitment to freedom and justice. Palestine was the one and only compass that must guide any Arab revolution. Whether a regime is good or bad should be judged, first and foremost, based on its stance from the Palestinian cause. Every event should somehow be viewed through a Palestinian lens. The Arab people have failed us, and we inspired the entire world with our resistance.

Yes, I called myself internationalist. I claimed to stand for universal and humanist ideals. I blathered on and on about breaking borders and waging a socialist revolution.

But then came Syria, and my hypocrisy and the fragility of those ideals became exposed.

When I first heard the Syrian people in Daraa demand a regime reform on 18 March 2011, all I could think about, subconsciously, was: “If the Egyptian scenario happens in Syria, it would be a disaster for Palestine.”

I did not think about those who were killed by the regime on that day. I did not think of those arrested or tortured.

I did not think about the inevitable crackdown by the regime.

I did not greet the incredibly courageous protests in Daraa with the same elation and zeal I felt during the Tunisian, Egyptian, Bahraini, Yemeni, and Libyan uprisings.

All I could muster was a sigh of suspicion and fear.

“Assad is a tyrant and his regime is rotten,” I thought to myself, “but the subsequent results of its fall might be catastrophic for Palestine and the resistance.” That sacred axis of resistance meant to me back then much more than the Syrian lives being cut short by its defenders.

I was one of those whose hearts would pound when Hassan Nasrallah appeared on TV. I bookmarked loads of YouTube videos of his speeches and teared up while listening to songs glorifying the resistance and its victories.

And while I supported the demands of the Syrian protesters in principle, I did so with reluctance and it was a conditional support. It was not even solidarity because it was so selfish and always centered around Palestine.

I retweeted a blog post by an Egyptian activist calling on Syrians to carry Palestinian flags, in order to “debunk” regime propaganda. The Syrian people took to the streets defending the same universal ideals that I claimed to stand for, yet I was incapable of viewing their struggle outside my narrow Palestinian prism. I claimed to be internationalist while prioritizing Palestinian concerns over Syrian victims. I shamelessly took part in the Suffering Olympics and was annoyed that Syrian pain occupied more newspaper pages than Palestinian pain. I was too gullible to notice that the ordeals of both Syrians and Palestinians are just footnotes and that the breaking news would become too routine, too dull and unworthy of consumption in the space of few months.

I claimed to reject all forms of oppression while simultaneously waiting for the head of a sectarian militia to say something about Syria and to talk passionately about Palestine.

The Syrian revolution put me on trial for betraying my principles. But instead of condemning me, it taught me the lesson of my life: it was a lesson given with grace and dignity.

It was delivered with love, by the women and men dancing and singing in the streets, challenging the iron fist with creativity, refusing to give up while being chased by security forces, turning funeral processions into exuberant marches for freedom, rethinking ways to subvert regime censorship; introducing mass politics amidst unspeakable terror; and chanting for unity despite sectarian incitement; and chanting the name of Palestine in numerous protests and carrying the Palestinian flag without needing a superstar Egyptian blogger to ask them to do so.

It was a gradual learning process in which I had to grapple with my own prejudices of how a revolution should “look like,” and how we should react to a movement against a purportedly pro-Palestinian regime. I desperately tried to overlook the ugly face beneath the mask of resistance worn by Hezbollah, but the revolution tore that mask apart. And that was not the only mask torn apart, many more followed. And now the real faces of self-styled freedom fighters and salon leftists were exposed; the long-crushed Syrian voices emerged. [Continue reading…]

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Hezbollah avoids blaming Israel for death of top commander in Syria

The Washington Post reports: In a surprise announcement Saturday, Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia blamed the recent killing of a militant described as its top commander in Syria on extremist Sunni insurgents. Many expected the powerful Shiite group to point a finger at its traditional nemesis, Israel.

Hezbollah revealed a day earlier that Mustafa Badreddine, one of its most senior figures, died in a mysterious blast in Damascus, the Syrian capital. Before leading thousands of militants in Syria, Badreddine, 55, is suspected of having roles in the assassination of a Lebanese prime minister in 2005, and other bombings that date to the attack on the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983.

Analysts said Friday that ­Badreddine’s killing appeared to bear the hallmarks of an airstrike by Israel, which has targeted a number of the Lebanese militants in Syria in recent years. But in a statement, Hezbollah blamed it on “artillery bombardment carried out by takfiri groups in the area.”

Hezbollah uses “takfiri,” an ­Arabic word, to describe its extremist Sunni Muslim enemies, including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Hezbollah didn’t specify which group killed Badreddine or when he died.

But the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, said there has been no shelling for more than a week in the area where Hezbollah said Badreddine was killed, Reuters reported.

If Hezbollah had blamed Israel for his death, the group would have come under pressure to launch a tough retaliation that, in turn, would risk triggering war. Israel and Hezbollah fought a brief but devastating war in 2006. [Continue reading…]

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Mustafa Badreddine, Hezbollah military commander, is killed in Syria

The New York Times reports: Mustafa Amine Badreddine, Hezbollah’s top military commander, who was directing its operations in Syria and was accused in a string of deadly attacks stretching across decades, has been killed in Damascus, Hezbollah officials confirmed on Friday.

Mr. Badreddine, 55, had been overseeing Hezbollah’s forces in Syria, which have been decisive in keeping President Bashar al-Assad in power through five years of war with various rebel and militant Islamist groups seeking to topple him.

Mr. Assad is a close ally of Hezbollah’s patron, Iran, which has long provided a conduit to supply Hezbollah with weapons to battle Israel. Now, Hezbollah is the most powerful of several Iran-backed Shiite paramilitary groups that, along with Iranian forces, are playing an ever more prominent role on the battlefield in Syria.

It remained unclear who was behind Mr. Badreddine’s death: Israel, or one of the insurgent groups Hezbollah has been fighting.

Hezbollah, which confirmed the death on Al Manar, its television network, said that Mr. Badreddine died in a “huge blast” near the Damascus airport, in which several of the group’s fighters were wounded. “The investigation will find out the nature of the blast as well as its reasons, and whether it was a result of an airstrike or rocket attack,” it said.

The timing of the attack was not provided. A Beirut-based television network, Al Mayadeen, which is also close to Hezbollah, initially reported that Mr. Badreddine had been killed in an Israeli airstrike, but it later removed that report. [Continue reading…]

The Guardian reports: Born in the southern Beirut suburb of Ghobeiry on 6 April 1961, Badreddine had a pronounced limp, believed to have been sustained while he fought alongside pro-Palestinian and pan-Arabist militias during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

His nom de guerre was Sayyed Zul Fikar: Sayyed indicating a claimed descent from the prophet Muhammad; Zul Fikar being the name of the legendary forked sword of Imam Ali, the prophet’s cousin and one of the most revered figures in Shia Islam.

Badreddine was arrested and sentenced to death in Kuwait in 1983 over his suspected involvement in a string of coordinated bombings in the tiny Gulf emirate that also targeted the US and French embassies. They were believed to be retribution for Kuwait and the west’s support for Iraq in its war with Iran.

The sentence, which had to be formally approved by the emir, was never carried out, perhaps as a consequence of a series of attacks and plane hijackings demanding the release of the Kuwait attackers, and which allegedly involved Mughniyeh. It was also never carried out because when the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990, he threw open the doors of the country’s prisons, allowing Badreddine to escape.

This is where the trail disappears. It only emerges again in 2011, when UN prosecutors investigating a 2005 Beirut bombing that killed Lebanon’s prime minister, Rafik Hariri, indicted Badreddine. They alleged he was the coordinator of a sophisticated network that tracked and ultimately assassinated the popular billionaire. [Continue reading…]

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Mustafa Badreddine, the pyromaniac playboy who led Hezbollah’s fight in Syria

Last August, Alex Rowell wrote: To close friends, he is “Dhu al-Faqar”—the name, meaning, “the cleaver of vertebrae,” of the legendary double-tipped sword given by the Prophet Muhammad to his son-in-law, Ali bin Abi Talib, the patron imam of Shia Islam. To the Kuwaiti government, who sentenced him to death in 1984 for a spate of audacious bombings on targets including the American and French embassies and the airport, he is Elias Fouad Saab. To prosecutors at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) in The Hague, who are currently trying him in absentia on suspicion of assassinating Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005, he is Mustafa Amine Badreddine. To genteel dining companions — and multiple mistresses — entertained at his seaside home north of Beirut, he is the boat-owning, Mercedes-driving Christian jeweler, Sami Issa.

Or, rather, he was. The Frank Abagnale Jr. of jihad has found yet another preoccupation in the last few years. According to sources as discrepant as the U.S. Treasury Department and a militantly pro-Hezbollah newspaper in Beirut, the man who also goes by the name Safi Badr is currently leading the Party of God’s military intervention against the Syrian uprising, personally sitting in on meetings between President Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah. It’s a distinction that earned the “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” a fresh dose of American sanctions just last week. [Continue reading…]

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Russia freezes delivery of S-300 missile defense to Iran, reports Kuwaiti newspaper

The Times of Israel reports: ssian President Vladmir Putin reportedly froze the transfer of the S-300 anti-aircraft missile system to Iran after receiving evidence from Israel that Tehran had transferred advanced weapons to Hezbollah.

The Kuwaiti newspaper al-Jarida published the unconfirmed report on Saturday, citing an unnamed source allegedly “familiar” with Putin.

The source said that Putin scuppered the delivery after Israel showed that Iran had repeatedly attempted to transfer the SA-22 Greyhound short-range air defense system to the Lebanese-based terrorist group.

The report also said that Russian pilots claimed to have detected the presence of advance anti-aircraft systems in Hezbollah-controlled territory straddling the Syria-Lebanon border.

Israel, according to the report, has turned a blind eye to the Iranian-backed group’s possession of the Soviet-made SA-5 Gammon surface-to-air missile system, known also as the S-200. [Continue reading…]

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Hezbollah sees new struggle in Lebanon, denounces Saudi Arabia

Reuters reports: Hezbollah said on Tuesday that Lebanon had been pushed into a new phase of political conflict by Saudi Arabia but was not on the brink of civil war and its government of national unity should survive.

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, head of the Iranian-backed group, also stepped up criticism of Saudi Arabia, accusing it of directing car bombings in Lebanon, an arena for sectarian-tinged Iranian-Saudi rivalry that is escalating across the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia had no immediate response to the accusation.

Relations between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia have been plunged into crisis since Riyadh halted $3 billion in aid to the Lebanese army – a response to the Beirut government’s failure to condemn attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran. [Continue reading…]

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