How the Syrian civil war has transformed Hezbollah

Jesse Rosenfeld writes:  The rattle of tracer fire jolts a cellphone camera resting in the gun hole of an upper-level apartment on a shelled-out east Aleppo street. Moments after the Hezbollah fighter has fired incendiary ammunition into the neighborhood below, it’s enveloped in flames.

In another fighter’s video from the battle of Aleppo last fall, a burst of machine-gun fire erupts as Hezbollah militiamen charge forward and take up positions behind pockmarked walls. They shoot indiscriminately at an unseen enemy, which they say is the rebel force Jaysh al-Islam.

In stills taken by a Hezbollah fighter on the front lines of the Aleppo countryside just before the cease-fire was declared on December 30, fighters from Hezbollah (the Party of God) operate tanks flying the flag of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus. The images provide a glimpse at how the most consequential battle of the Syrian war looked through the eyes of the conquering forces—and they indicate how crucial Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia has been in defending the Assad regime.

The destruction the Syrian government and its allies brought to east Aleppo changed the course of the nearly six-year civil war. Indeed, it could mark the beginning of the end of what started in 2011 as a popular revolution against an authoritarian regime. By laying siege to the unofficial capital of the revolution—indiscriminately bombarding it into rubble, starving and displacing its residents, and committing massacres—Assad’s counter-revolution seems to have ensured the government’s future.

Abu Hussein has been on the front lines of Assad’s strategy and features prominently in the footage and photos from Aleppo that he flips through on his phone. He is a Hezbollah commander in charge of a rapid-intervention unit of 200 fighters. They participated in the regime’s retaking of Aleppo last year as well as the ongoing fighting around Palmyra. The boisterous militant, who uses a nom de guerre because he is not authorized to speak to the media, contends that Hezbollah has been the Assad regime’s backbone, changing the course of the war on the ground. [Continue reading…]

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Syrian UN envoy: Putin sent message to Israel that its freedom to act in Syria is over

Haaretz reports: Russia has sent a clear message to Israel that the rules of the game have changed in Syria and its freedom to act in Syrian skies is over, Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations said on Sunday night.

“Putin sent a clear message,” said Bashar Jaafari, speaking on Syrian television. “The fact is that the Israeli ambassador [to Russia] was summoned for a conversation only a day after he submitted his credentials [to the Russian Foreign Ministry last Thursday], and was told categorically that this game is over.”

Syria’s use of anti-aircraft fire against Israel last Thursday night has changed the rules of the game, too, Jaafari said, adding that Syria will not stand idly by in the face of an Israeli threat.

He also claimed that when the civil war began in Syria in 2011, opposition militia groups sabotaged the anti-aircraft defense systems belonging to President Bashar Assad’s regime, giving Israel freedom to operate.

In a separate incident, Syrian media reported Sunday that the commander of a militia fighting alongside the regime was killed in an Israeli airstrike around Quneitra, in the Golan Heights.

The Lebanese TV channel Al Mayadeen, which is associated with Hezbollah, identified the casualty as Yasser Assayed, a member of the national defense militia. A source associated with the Assad regime said Assayad was a commander in the Golan brigade, a militia of Druze fighters (from villages in the Syrian part of the Golan Heights) who are fighting with the regime.

Between Thursday night and Friday morning, Israeli fighter jets attacked several targets in Syria, triggering the most serious clash between Israel and Syria since the civil war erupted six years ago. In response to the airstrikes, the Assad regime’s aerial defense system fired several missiles at the jets. Israel’s Arrow anti-missile defense system was launched, shooting down one of the missiles north of Jerusalem. The incident forced Israel to admit for the first time that it had launched an aerial attack in Syria.

Following that, Israel’s ambassador to Moscow, Gary Koren, was summoned to the Russian Foreign Ministry for talks with Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov – again, an unusual development. Since Russian forces began operating in Syria in 2015, there have been a number of airstrikes that foreign media have attributed to Israel. But the Israeli ambassador had never previously been called in to clarify Israel’s actions. [Continue reading…]

The Associated Press reports: Fierce clashes broke out in the Syrian capital on Sunday after insurgents infiltrated government-held parts of the city through tunnels overnight in a rare advance after months of steady losses elsewhere in the country.

It was a surprising breach of the security perimeter in Damascus, where the government has effectively walled itself off from opposition forces encamped in two enclaves in the eastern parts of the city.

Bashar al-Assad’s government has endeavoured to maintain a veneer of normality in the capital as his forces bomb opposition areas on the edges and suburbs of the city.

Residents said artillery shells and rockets had landed in the heart of the city. Damascus Today, a Facebook group run by activists, reported government airstrikes in the area where the clashes took place.

Government infantry and tank reinforcements arrived to repel the attackers in the afternoon, the group said. [Continue reading…]

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U.S., Hezbollah and Russia operate in de facto alliance as Assad’s forces retake Palmyra

The Washington Post reports: Syrian government forces recaptured the historic city of Palmyra from the Islamic State on Thursday, aided by Lebanon’s Hezbollah, the Russian military and, indirectly, U.S. airstrikes.

The government victory came nearly three months after the Islamic State marched back into the town in a surprise assault that appeared to have taken the Syrian army unawares.

The Syrian army announced in a statement read on state television Thursday evening that its forces were in complete control of Palmyra after a push on the town in recent days that saw Islamic State defenses rapidly collapse. [Continue reading…]

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Syria is on the brink of partition – here’s how it got there

By Scott Lucas, University of Birmingham

After nearly six years of uprising, conflict and chaos, the partition of Syria is imminent. President Bashar al-Assad will of course rail against it; his crucial ally Iran will probably resist too, and the marginalised US won’t even acknowledge the prospect. But the lines are nonetheless being drawn.

With pro-Assad forces back in control of Aleppo city, a newly co-operative Turkey and Russia are ready to pursue partition as a short-term resolution. The Syrian opposition and many rebels will embrace it as their best immediate option, and the leading Kurdish political and military groups will settle for whatever autonomy they can get. If things continue shaping up this way, by the end of 2017, Syria will quite probably become a country of four parts.

The Russia- and Iran-backed Assad regime is set to hold much of the south and west, and most of Syria’s cities. There’ll most likely be a Turkish/rebel area, effectively a “safe zone”, in parts of northern Syria; the Syrian opposition will probably control Idlib province and possibly other pockets of territory in the northwest; while the Kurds will have some form of autonomy in the northeast.

A settlement like this has been a long time coming. Neither the Assad regime nor its enemies will settle for just a part of Syria, and both have survived years of intense conflict. The opposition and rebels still control territory from the north to the south; Assad clings on with the help of Russian aerial bombardments and Iranian-led ground forces. All the while, the Kurdish Democratic Party (PYD) and its YPG militia are still defending territory against both IS and the Assad regime.

If the lines of a potential partition were clear some time ago, what stood in the way of recognising them was the challenge of Aleppo city. Without recapturing it, the Assad regime had no hope of claiming an economic recovery (however disingenousouly) in the areas it controlled, let alone in the entire country. But the city was surrounded by opposition-controlled territory; Assad’s military was far too depleted to change the game, and even with outside support, its campaign would be protracted.

[Read more…]

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Assad vows to retake Raqa and ‘every inch’ of Syria

AFP reports: President Bashar al-Assad on Thursday said Raqa is not a priority target for his forces, saying his goal is to retake “every inch” of Syrian territory.

“Raqa is a symbol,” Assad said in an interview with French media, while asserting that jihadist attacks carried out in France were “not necessarily prepared” in the Islamic State group (IS) stronghold in Syria.

“You have ISIS close to Damascus, you have them everywhere,” Assad said, using another acronym for IS.

“Everywhere is a priority depending on the development of the battle,” he said, as a new round of peace talks was set to kick off in the Kazakh capital Astana.

“They are in Palmyra now and in the eastern part of Syria,” he said in the interview in Damascus with Europe 1 radio and the TF1 and LCI television channels.

“For us it is all the same, Raqa, Palmyra, Idlib, it’s all the same.”

The Syrian leader said it was the “duty of any government” to regain control of “every inch” of its territory. [Continue reading…]

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How Trump may help Hezbollah

The Times of Israel reports: Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said he was “optimistic” now that the “fool” US President Donald Trump is in the White House, presenting what Nasrallah described as new opportunities for the Lebanon-based terror group.

Nasrallah made the comments during a televised speech broadcast on the Hezbollah terror group’s affiliate satellite channel, al-Manar.

“Neither Trump nor any other of these racists will damage the faith of children and our elders,” he said. “We are very optimistic that when a fool settles in the White House and boasts about his foolishness, this is the beginning of relief for the oppressed around the world.”

“Trump revealed the true face of the ugly, racist and unjust US administration, and we thank him for that,” Nasrallah added. [Continue reading…]

VOA reports: Hezbollah hopes that Trump is so busy pursuing his “America first” policy that he will leave a lighter U.S. footprint in the Middle East, perhaps even setting the stage for a withdrawal from the region.

“The more the U.S. policy turns toward isolationism, the more relieved the world would be from its troubles,” Nawwaf Moussawi, a member of Hezbollah in the Lebanese parliament, said last month.

Some analysts believe Hezbollah has reasons for optimism and that Trump’s possible policy in the region could, by default, strengthen the militant group.

“Trump’s reluctance toward the fight in Syria will practically provide more room for Hezbollah, a major player in Syria, to grow and flourish,” said U.K.-based Middle East scholar Scott Lucas, an editor at the EA Worldview research organization.

Others argue that Hezbollah doesn’t have the resources to create further instability in the region. [Continue reading…]

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Russia, Turkey, Iran eye dicing Syria into zones of influence

Reuters reports: Syria would be divided into informal zones of regional power influence and Bashar al-Assad would remain president for at least a few years under an outline deal between Russia, Turkey and Iran, sources say.

Such a deal, which would allow regional autonomy within a federal structure controlled by Assad’s Alawite sect, is in its infancy, subject to change and would need the buy-in of Assad and the rebels and, eventually, the Gulf states and the United States, sources familiar with Russia’s thinking say.

“There has been a move toward a compromise,” said Andrey Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, a think tank close to the Russian Foreign Ministry.

“A final deal will be hard, but stances have shifted.”

Assad’s powers would be cut under a deal between the three nations, say several sources. Russia and Turkey would allow him to stay until the next presidential election when he would quit in favor of a less polarizing Alawite candidate.

Iran has yet to be persuaded of that, say the sources. But either way Assad would eventually go, in a face-saving way, with guarantees for him and his family.

“A couple of names in the leadership have been mentioned (as potential successors),” said Kortunov, declining to name names.

Nobody thinks a wider Syrian peace deal, something that has eluded the international community for years, will be easy, quick or certain of success. What is clear is that President Vladimir Putin wants to play the lead role in trying to broker a settlement, initially with Turkey and Iran. [Continue reading…]

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Iran and Russia stand to gain immensely following the fall of Aleppo

Nabeel Khoury writes: Aleppo has fallen to Bashar Al-Assad’s forces, battered by unrelenting Russian bombardment and surrounded by Shiite militias from Syria, Lebanon, Iran, and Iraq. The Syrian regime is poised to reap the rewards of this regional and international onslaught. The rebels’ goal of ousting President Al-Assad has now become virtually impossible, at least in the near term. To be sure, there are further battles to be fought in Syrian territory still beyond the reach of the regime. Idlib is likely the next battlefront, but one can already project an empowered Syria-Iran-Russia axis planning the next steps ahead.

Toward the end of 2012, when Syrian rebel resistance to Al-Assad was gaining in strength and pressing hard against the regime’s bastions in Damascus and Latakia, the regime’s military strategy, no doubt recommended by Iran and Hezbollah, was to secure a line of defense around Syria’s major urban centers that would stretch from the Turkish border in the north to the Jordanian border in the south. Hezbollah started the process by besieging and taking the town of Qusayr in the summer of 2013.

This was a strategic turnaround for the regime, the significance of which the Barack Obama administration completely missed. By not intervening or helping the opposition hold on to Qusayr, the United States allowed the regime to stop arms smuggling to the rebels via Tripoli and the Lebanese border. Qusayr also helped consolidate a defensive line between Latakia and Damascus, allowing the regime to protect its core areas. The three years that followed saw the regime further strengthening its defenses along the Lebanese borders guaranteeing free movement for Hezbollah in and out of Syria. [Continue reading…]

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Pro-regime forces in Syria are stretched thin  – and fighting among themselves

Tom Cooper writes: Five years into Syria’s apocalyptic civil war, there is no more Syrian Arab Army on the country’s battlefields. So who’s fighting for Syrian president Bashar Al Assad?

The answer is a shocking one. Today the forces fighting for the Syrian regime represent a hodgepodge of sectarian local militias, most of which do not fall under the regime’s direct control.

In other words, Al Assad is waging a war with virtually no troops of his own.

The exceptions to this rule are few  — only around a dozen of company-sized formations that survived the collapse of the Syrian army’s Republican Guards Division and 4th Armored Division. And those companies were never within the normal army chain of command, instead personally answering to Al Assad.

The majority of the remaining “regime forces” — some 70,000 combatants  —  belong to the Syrian militias, all of which were established by either the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps or Hezbollah, and the majority of which now fall under Iranian control. [Continue reading…]

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Iran hails victory in Aleppo as Shia militias boost Syria’s Bashar al-Assad

The Guardian reports: Iranian leaders have claimed a military victory in Aleppo, with the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s chief military aide boasting that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s forces would have been unable to retake the besieged city without support from Tehran.

“Aleppo was liberated thanks to a coalition between Iran, Syria, Russia and Lebanon’s Hizbollah,” said Seyed Yahya Rahim-Safavi. “Iran is on one side of this coalition which is approaching victory and this has shown our strength. The new American president should take heed of the powers of Iran.”

Iran’s defence minister called his Syrian counterpart to congratulate him and Mohsen Rezaie, a former commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, wrote on Instagram that Iran’s aim was to cleanse “terrorists and Takfiris [apostates]” from Syria and Iraq.

The parliamentary speaker, Ali Larijani, also congratulated Assad’s government, saying that US and British policies had hit a dead end in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. [Continue reading…]

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Paddy Ashdown on Aleppo: ‘There must not be another Srebrenica’

 

The New York Times reports: Artillery shelling resumed early Wednesday on besieged eastern neighborhoods of the Syrian city of Aleppo, delaying a promised evacuation of thousands of civilians and medical staff members who had been expecting to leave under the aegis of a deal announced at the United Nations.

Buses that were supposed to evacuate some of the last holdouts in the heavily bombed neighborhoods left, empty, after waiting for hours, the Lebanese television station Al Manar, which is affiliated with the militant Shiite group Hezbollah reported — a sign that the evacuation process might not happen on Wednesday as planned.

The Pan-Arab television network Al Mayadeen showed buses idling at a prearranged evacuation point, waiting to take 5,000 fighters and their families to Atareb, a town west of Aleppo.

The opposition says that Iran, one of the Syrian government’s main allies, and its Shiite militia proxies were obstructing the deal; witnesses said that the militias had prevented a convoy of about 70 wounded people — mostly fighters and their relatives — from departing, despite the supposed deal announced at the United Nations. The militias, observers said, insisted that they would not allow anyone out until rebel groups had ended their siege of Fouaa and Kfarya, two encircled Shiite enclaves in Idlib Province.

Osama Abu Zayd, a legal adviser to Syrian opposition factions, told The Associated Press that the evacuation deal was being resisted by Iran’s field commander in Syria. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, said it believed that Iran — a major ally of the Syrian government — had balked at the deal, annoyed that Russia and Turkey had not consulted it.

But the Russian Defense Ministry blamed the rebels for the impasse, saying on Wednesday that they had “resumed the hostilities” at dawn, trying to break through Syrian government positions to the northwest.

The impasse could be the sign of a stalling tactic by Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad. His government has often skillfully played its backers — Iran, Russia and others — off one another. The disagreement could provide cover for what the Syrian government has wanted to do all along: finish off the enclave with force. As one Syrian military officer told Reuters in Aleppo recently, rebels must “surrender or die.”

Malek, an activist who has repeatedly moved around eastern Aleppo for his safety, and who asked to be identified only by his first name for fear that he would soon find himself in government territory, said he had looked forward to the evacuation, but that “nothing happened.”

Interviewed over the messaging service WhatsApp, he added, using a mournful idiom, “We didn’t taste the flavor of life.”

Troubles carrying out the accord were not surprising, as there was no international monitoring — United Nations officials said the Syrian government refused their repeated pleas to observe the process — and no mechanism to enforce the agreement. That has been a problem with other deals reached during the conflict.

Within eastern Aleppo, residents were alarmed as Russian news agencies broadcast remarks from the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, who said he expected the rebels to “stop their resistance within two, three days.” Those remarks alarmed observers, as the evacuation deal says rebels already agreed to stop fighting in exchange for being allowed to leave.

“They are planning to slaughter us all,” said Monther Etaky, a civilian activist who had been hoping to evacuate.

Salem, a dentist who had kept his clinic open until last week, and who finally moved to one of the last rebel neighborhoods when his own was taken by government forces, said he could hear heavy shelling.

“We slept a quiet night, but sadly the shelling is back,” he said Wednesday morning, asking to be identified only by his first name. “Please share my message: The cease-fire collapsed. The situation is bad again.” [Continue reading…]

The Guardian reports: British MPs are deceiving themselves if they believe they do not bear some of the responsibility for the “terrible tragedy” unfolding in Syria, the former chancellor, George Osborne, said on Tuesday during an often anguished emergency debate in the House of Commons on the carnage being inflicted in eastern Aleppo. In one of his first speeches in the Commons since losing office, Osborne said there had been “multiple opportunities to intervene” in Syria as he cited parliament’s decision in 2013 not to take military action after the use of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

“Let’s be clear now: if you do not shape the world, you will be shaped by it. We are beginning to see the price of not intervening,” Osborne said.

The Commons voted by a majority of 13 in 2013 to reject military action after Labour combined with Tory rebels to deliver David Cameron his single biggest Commons rebuff. [Continue reading…]

Janine di Giovanni writes: Depending on your personal view, Aleppo has now fallen, or been retaken, or been liberated. But my interest is not with any political side. It’s with victims of state terror, and all the civilians whose lives have been shattered by a war that has been raging for more than five years. It is the most cynical conflict I have seen in 25 years of war reporting. Both the regime and opposition are guilty of war crimes, though one much more than the other.

What I’m considering now, from the comfort of my Paris home, is how a city falls. I am thinking of people cowering in basements and struggling with whether they flee from their city now, or wait. Who is coming to save them, or kill them? I know how that scenario goes. I lived through Sarajevo during the Bosnia war, and was in Grozny when it fell to (or was “liberated” by) Russian forces. I remember hiding in those basements waiting for the Russian tanks to come into the village, and wondering if I would be dead in a few hours.

I am thinking about the civilians – all of those people with whom I sat for hours while writing my book, or writing reports for the UN high commissioner for refugees – and what they are doing to survive. [Continue reading…]

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Iran-backed militias block Aleppo evacuation as shelling resumes

The Guardian reports: Iran-backed militias are preventing civilians and opposition fighters from leaving the besieged districts of east Aleppo as Russia struggles to convince the Assad government and allied militants to abide by a ceasefire agreement.

Shelling of the besieged districts resumed on Wednesday morning despite the agreement brokered by Turkish intelligence and the Russian military on Tuesday that would have offered a respite to tens of thousands of trapped civilians.

It was unclear on Wednesday when residents would be allowed to leave east Aleppo and whether the deal would hold. Turkey’s state-run Anadolu agency quoted the head of the Turkish Red Crescent as saying nearly 1,000 people from east Aleppo were being held at an Iranian militia checkpoint.

Rebels inside east Aleppo said they would support the agreement but Iranian-backed militias on the ground, which led the assault into east Aleppo, were blocking it because the deal was reached without Assad or Iran’s involvement.

“The sectarian militias want to resume the massacre in Aleppo and the world has to act to prevent this sectarian slaughter led by Iran,” said Bassam Mustafa, a member of the political council of Noureddine Zinki, one of the main rebel groups in east Aleppo. “The opposition will continue to abide by the agreement.”

Yasser al-Youssef, a spokesman for the group, said Russia was attempting to convince the Assad government to accept the ceasefire. The Turkish foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, said discussions were ongoing with Russia and Iran to continue the planned evacuations. [Continue reading…]

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Aleppo’s ‘descent into hell’ as the world looks on, impotently

In an editorial, The Guardian says: Exhausted parents clutching terrified children in their arms, young people pushing the old in makeshift carts or wheelchairs and families pulling overstuffed suitcases: the scenes from east Aleppo are those of a new exodus. As Syrian government forces move on the last urban stronghold of the anti-Assad opposition, helped by Shia militias from Iraq, Iran and Hezbollah, hundreds of men have been rounded up and disappeared. Their relatives, as well as human rights activists, fear they may already be dead, or have become victims of Assad’s network of jails and torture centres where thousands have been murdered.

The Syrian and Russian onslaught has been going on for weeks. But now it is at a new intensity, as it approaches what may be the end game. A strategy of indiscriminate bombing, terror and destruction, the UN was told, threatens to turn this part of Syria’s second city into a giant graveyard. Syrian army leaflets dropped on the city warn the inhabitants that they must flee, or face annihilation.

Rebel-held Aleppo seems condemned to utter destruction and defeat. Posted on social media, citizens’ desperate messages resemble final pleas, all hope gone. A UN representative has described the situation as a “descent into hell”. US Department of State officials have made it clear that nothing much can be done; western countries have convened an emergency security council meeting, but beyond words of condemnation and warnings of a humanitarian catastrophe in the making – France has spoken of “what could be the biggest massacres of civilian population since the second world war” – the powerlessness of UN institutions is obvious. In London, at prime minister’s questions, the SNP’s Angus Robertson at least got the Syrian crisis into the discussion. Labour again passed by on the other side. [Continue reading…]

Reuters reports: Syria and its allies aim to drive rebels from Aleppo before Donald Trump takes office as U.S. President, a senior official in the pro-Damascus military alliance said, as pro-government forces surged to their biggest victories in the city for years.

Rebels face one of their gravest moments of the war after pro-government forces routed fighters over the past few days from more than a third of the territory they controlled in the city. Thousands of civilians have fled for safety.

The pro-government official, who declined to be identified in order to speak freely, nevertheless indicated that the next phase of the campaign could be more difficult as the army and its allies seek to capture more densely populated areas.

Rebel fighters fought fiercely to stop government forces advancing deeper into the opposition-held enclave on Tuesday, confronting pro-Assad militias who sought to move into the area from the southeast, a rebel official said.

The attack on eastern Aleppo threatens to snuff out the most important urban center of the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad, who has been firmly on the offensive for more than a year thanks to Russian and Iranian military support. [Continue reading…]

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In Syria’s Aleppo, Shiite militias point to Iran’s unparalleled influence

The Washington Post reports: Syria’s government hopes a brutal siege will vanquish rebel holdouts in the city of Aleppo, a key battleground. But Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s troops aren’t leading the charge.

That task has been taken up by thousands of Shiite militiamen from Lebanon, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan who are loyal to Iran, a Shiite country and perhaps Assad’s most important ally.

For much of Syria’s civil war, these religiously motivated fighters have reinforced Syria’s badly weakened military. Now, they are playing an increasingly critical role in trying to seize opposition-held eastern Aleppo by coordinating their attacks with government forces and warplanes flown by Russia, another ally of Assad’s.

The government, backed by Russian aircraft, launched a major offensive across northern Syria last week that has brought further devastation to eastern Aleppo, Syria’s largest city before the war.

The militias appear to be forming a sophisticated ground coalition that has further bolstered Iran’s influence in Syria, alarming even officials in Assad’s government, said Phillip Smyth, an expert on Shiite militias at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“They are building a force on the ground that, long after the war, will stay there and wield a strong military and ideological influence over Syria for Iran,” he said. “And there is not much Assad can do to curb the rising influence of these groups, even though Syrian officials are clearly concerned about this, because the militiamen are literally preventing the overthrow of his government.” [Continue reading…]

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Assad in person: Confident, friendly, no regrets

Anne Barnard reports: The guns were silent atop Mount Qasioun and the lights on its slopes twinkled over Damascus as President Bashar al-Assad of Syria welcomed a group of Western visitors into his French-Ottoman palace on Monday night, presenting himself as a man firmly in control of his country.

He radiated confidence and friendliness as he ushered a group of British and American journalists and policy analysts into an elegant wood-paneled sitting room where he claimed that the social fabric of Syria was stitched together “much better than before” a chaotic civil war began more than five years ago. It was as if half his citizens had not been driven from their homes and nearly half a million had not been killed in the bloody fighting for which he rejected any personal responsibility, blaming instead the United States and Islamist militants.

“I’m just a headline — the bad president, the bad guy, who is killing the good guys,” Mr. Assad said. “You know this narrative. The real reason is toppling the government. This government doesn’t fit the criteria of the United States.”

It was a surreal meeting for me after years of writing about a devastating and intractable war that has reduced several of Syria’s grand city centers to rubble and prompted accusations of war crimes. While hundreds of thousands of Syrians are besieged and hungry, here was Mr. Assad, secure in his palace because he has outsourced much of the war to Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah forces whose influence has grown to a degree that makes some of his own supporters uncomfortable. [Continue reading…]

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Iran’s man in Beirut

Alex Rowell writes: On the morning of 13 October, 1990, the Syrian Air Force launched fighter jet strikes on the Lebanese presidential palace in Baabda, southeast of Beirut. Their target was a General Michel Aoun, an army commander appointed two years previously by an outgoing president to lead a temporary cabinet until elections could be held, who instead went rogue, moving himself into Baabda Palace and effectively declaring himself ruler of the republic — and happy to fight anyone who said otherwise.

His reign, such as it was, saw thousands killed in quixotic military campaigns against rival warlords and the Syrian army then occupying Lebanon. By October 1990, the Syrians were determined to finish him off, and the United States — of whom he had also managed to make an enemy — was willing to let them, not least as a nod of gratitude for Damascus’ assistance in the liberation of Kuwait from Saddam Hussein. “I am ready to die on the battlefield of honor rather than surrender — be sure I shall die fighting,” Aoun told a crowd of supporters on the 12th, when it was clear a final Syrian push was imminent. By noon the following day, Aoun had surrendered without firing a shot and fled to the French embassy, leaving scores of his men massacred in the ground and air onslaught, and the presidential palace in ruins. Lebanon’s fifteen-year civil war was over.

Today, the same Michel Aoun — now 81 years old — was elected to return as president to the same Baabda Palace, ending Lebanon’s thirty-month leadership vacuum after spending over a quarter of a century between exile in France and Lebanon, tirelessly plotting his eventual comeback with near-Shakespearean ambition. “I can add colours to the chameleon,” boasts the rapacious Richard III in Henry VI; “Change shapes with Proteus for advantages/ And set the murd’rous Machiavel to school.” Aoun’s long life has seen him morph from a Fort Hill-trained commander in a US-backed army (once even photographed in Israeli company) to an anti-American proxy of the Iraqi Baath regime to a Bush-supporting neoconservative fellow traveler (speaking at the Hudson Institute in favor of the Iraq War on a 2003 tour of Washington, during which he also testified to Congress in support of the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act) to, most recently, a stalwart comrade of the Iranian-Syrian “Axis of Resistance.” His election today came after he and his Hezbollah ally boycotted all electoral sessions for more than two years, bluntly refusing to attend unless and until his victory was guaranteed in advance. Earlier in the month, the last of his major remaining opponents — Saad al-Hariri of the Saudi Arabia-backed Future Movement — caved in, endorsing Aoun in what he called a “sacrifice […] for the nation, the state, and stability.” [Continue reading…]

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