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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Hezbollah is learning Russian

Alexander Corbeil writes: Hezbollah has suffered several setbacks since it began its involvement in the Syrian war — over 1,300 of its fighters have been killed and thousands injured, it has had to cut back on social services it provides to its constituency and had to resort to recruiting teenagers for the fight in Syria. However, the Syrian civil war, especially the recent Russian involvement is also helping enhance the group’s fighting capabilities which is likely to have significant political and security implications in Lebanon and beyond.

Hezbollah has proven to be a forward-thinking and malleable fighting force. In 2012, when the group began to engage more robustly in Syria, it quickly learned that its defensive tactics were not applicable to the fight. Instead of a modern Israeli army, Hezbollah faced an insurgency. These rebel groups applied similar tactics to Hezbollah’s against regime soldiers and further benefited from local knowledge of the terrain in areas crucial to Bashar al-Assad’s survival. For instance, during the capture of Qusayr in 2013 Hezbollah reportedly lost around one-tenth of its fighters, with estimates ranging from 70 to 120 dead and 200 wounded, up to two dozen of whom were killed in a rebel ambush on the first day of that offensive; what Hezbollah leaders thought would be a quick victory instead turned into a drawn-out fight. Fast-forwarding to 2016, Hezbollah has refined its offensive capabilities and—under the cover of a new powerful ally, Russia—continued to help the Syrian regime take back crucial territory with lower casualty rates. [Continue reading…]

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UN knew for months that Syrians were starving in Madaya under Hezbollah siege

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…]

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Madaya: A huge concentration camp where Hezbollah starves people to death

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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…]

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In Syrian town cut off from the world, glimpses of deprivation

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…]

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UN war crimes investigators gathering testimony from starving Syrian town

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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…]

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Russia is arming Hezbollah, say two of the group’s field commanders

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…]

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Syrians in Madaya who once dreamed of freedom now dream of food

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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…]

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Amnesty: Famine in Syrian city of Madaya ‘the tip of an iceberg’

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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…]

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Assad/Hezbollah supporters share food photos to taunt starving civilians trapped in Madaya

The Independent reports: Supporters of the Syrian regime are sharing photos of their dinners to taunt thousands of starving civilians in a besieged town.

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…]

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Seeing the starving children of Madaya is shocking – but so is the world’s neglect

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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…]

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Hezbollah follows Israel’s example while trying to manage its siege PR problem

Hezbollah (“Party of God”) now seen as “Party of (forced) starvation”:

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Iran and its allies vowed to avenge Sheikh Nimr if he was executed

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…]

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What now for Lebanon and Syria?

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…]

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