Balint Szlanko writes: The National Defense Force — Syria’s main pro-government militia — is thought to number around 50,000 local recruits, but the government camp also includes foreign Shia militias. The Lebanese group Hezbollah has thousands of fighters in Syria, and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is sending officers both for advisory and direct combat roles, while Iraqi Shia volunteers number around 5,000, according to an estimate by Valerie Szybala of the Institute for the Study of War (ISW).
This influx of irregular forces has to some extent allowed the government to deal with its biggest problem: a shortage of manpower in general and a shortage of reliable and effective infantry in particular. This has plagued the regime since the beginning of the conflict, due to questionable loyalty among and huge desertions from army units made up mostly of Sunni Muslim conscripts.
The problem hasn’t quite gone away, however, and it continues to affect operations. The push into rebel areas east of Aleppo, for instance, has come at the price of pulling out of areas south of Damascus, such as the town of Jasim, and going slow on the big clearing operation by the Lebanese border.
It also means that the regular army no longer appears to be able to conduct maneuver warfare, where all its different arms—infantry, artillery, armored units, and air force—are integrated into coordinated operations. It now mainly serves to provide heavy-weapons support to the militias. “We are not seeing regular military operations at and above the battalion level anymore,” Jeffrey White, senior defense analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told me.
This has led government troops to rely on what Christopher Harmer, a military analyst at the ISW, calls siege warfare. “They identify rebel neighborhoods, encircle them and then shell and starve them into submission, trying to deny the rebels a safe haven,” he says. “They have enough infantry to go head-to-head in very specific places only.” The brutal barrel bombing of Aleppo, the starvation tactics that have left thousands of people without food in Damascus and Homs, and the razing of entire neighborhoods in these cities are only the most striking examples of this.
It also means that no success is final. “They just don’t have the capacity to completely destroy the rebels or stop them from leaking back in,” says White. Even as regime forces are working to envelop Aleppo, rebel fighters remain active in the government’s core areas, including Damascus and stretches of the crucial north–south highway.
In the final analysis, the problem is simply that the rebels have far more men. Syria’s population is 70 percent Sunni Muslim, and within this group most are overwhelmingly hostile to the regime. Alawites, the backbone of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule, make up just over one-tenth of the population, though the regime can rely on some support from the Christian and Druze communities as well. In a war of attrition — which is what his siege tactics amount to — Assad is bound to be the loser in the long run. [Continue reading...]
BBC News reports: The leader of the Lebanese Shia militant Hezbollah movement, Hassan Nasrallah, says his members will continue to fight alongside government forces in Syria’s civil war.
In a televised address on Sunday, he called on “political forces in the Arab world” to “stop the war on Syria”.
He said if this happened, then “of course” his forces would also leave.
Hezbollah’s presence on the ground has fuelled sectarian tensions back home, with violence spilling over the border.
Hezbollah forces have been fighting in support of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, while Lebanese Sunni Muslims tend to back the Syrian opposition.
Dozens of people have been killed in a string of deadly suicide blasts in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, and the northern city of Tripoli in recent months, with both Sunni and Shia militants blamed for the attacks. [Continue reading...]
Al Jazeera reports: A Saudi man who allegedly leads a group linked to al-Qaeda which operates throughout the Middle East has been arrested by military authorities in Lebanon, according to US national security sources.
Two US sources said that media reports from Lebanon that Lebanese Armed Forces had recently captured Majid bin Muhammad al-Majid, leader of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades were credible.
The sources did not offer further details on the circumstances in which he was captured.
Abdullah Azzam Brigades claimed responsibility for the November 19 twin suicide bombings that targeted the Iranian embassy in Beirut. The explosions killed at least 23 people and left more than hundred injured.
Lebanese media reported on Tuesday that Majid had been arrested two days ago.
One report said he had lived for years in a Palestinian refugee camp before leaving for Syria a month ago, where he allegedly pledged allegiance to the leader of the Nusrah Front, one of the most violent groups fighting to oust the government of President Bashar Assad. [Continue reading...]
The Wall Street Journal reports: Saudi Arabia pledged $3 billion to bolster Lebanon’s armed forces, in a challenge to the Iranian-allied Hezbollah militia’s decadeslong status as Lebanon’s main power broker and security force.
Lebanese President Michel Sleiman revealed the Saudi gift on Lebanese national television Sunday, calling it the largest aid package ever to the country’s defense bodies. The Saudi pledge compares with Lebanon’s 2012 defense budget, which the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute put at $1.7 billion.
Lebanon would use the Saudi grant to buy “newer and more modern weapons,” from France, said Mr. Sleiman, an independent who has become increasingly critical of Hezbollah. It followed what he called “decades of unsuccessful efforts” to build a credible Lebanese national defense force.
As a direct challenge to Hezbollah, the Saudi gift—and the Lebanese president’s acceptance—has potential to change the balance of power in Lebanon and the region. It also threatens to raise sectarian and political tensions further in a region already made volatile by the three-year, heavily sectarian civil war next door in Syria.
The Saudi move was announced hours after thousands of Lebanese turned out for the funerals of former cabinet minister Mohamad Chatah and some of the other victims killed Friday in a bombing in downtown Beirut. The bomb was believed to have targeted Mr. Chatah, an outspoken critic of Hezbollah’s dominance of Lebanese affairs and security. No group has claimed responsibility. [Continue reading...]
Rami G. Khouri writes: Lebanon was jolted into a fresh political crisis on Friday after a car bomb in central Beirut assassinated Mohammad Shatah, a prominent political ally and adviser to former Prime Ministers Saad Hariri and Fouad Siniora. Such attacks have been a sad part of Lebanese political culture since the 1970s. The target, timing and location of the attack perhaps shed light on the perpetrators and purpose of the criminal deed, which killed at least four others and wounded over 70 people.
The attack should probably be analyzed at three levels simultaneously: the domestic confrontation between the March 14 and March 8 coalitions; the armed conflict to bring down or save the Syrian regime; and the wider ideological conflict across the Middle East that is driven to a large extent by Iran and Saudi Arabia. Killing Shatah at this time and in the heart of March 14’s political terrain in West Beirut echoes elements of all three conflicts.
Lebanon has been gripped by political stagnation in its formal governance institutions for much of the past year, as the Parliament, Cabinet and National Dialogue have all been moribund due to a deep ideological divide between the Hariri-led March 14 forces that are close to Saudi Arabia and the Hezbollah-led March 8 camp that is close to Syria and Iran. Both rhetoric and violent actions have escalated between these two groups and their allies in Lebanon in the past year. They are also engaged in combat inside Syria, where Hezbollah and Iran support Bashar Assad’s regime and Lebanese Sunni Salafists are fighting to bring down the Damascus regime. [Continue reading...]
#Hezbollah is pressing hard to be granted similar powers in security & foreign policy matters that Syria exercised in Lebanon for 15 yrs.
— Mohamad B Chatah (@mohamad_chatah) December 27, 2013
Reuters reports: Former Lebanese minister Mohamad Chatah, who opposed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, was killed in a massive bomb blast which one of his political allies blamed on Lebanon’s Shi’ite Hezbollah militia.
Friday’s attack also killed five other people and threw Lebanon, which has been drawn into neighboring Syria’s conflict, into further turmoil after a series of sectarian bombings aimed at Shi’ites and Sunnis over the past year.
Former prime minister Saad al-Hariri accused Hezbollah of involvement in the killing of Chatah, his 62-year-old political adviser, saying it was “a new message of terrorism”.
“As far as we are concerned the suspects … are those who are fleeing international justice and refusing to represent themselves before the international tribunal,” Hariri said.
Chatah’s killing occurred three weeks before the long-delayed opening of a trial of five Hezbollah suspects indicted for the 2005 bombing which killed former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, Saad’s father, and 21 other people.
The trial is due to open in The Hague in January. The suspects are all fugitives and Hezbollah, which denies any role in the Hariri assassination, has refused to cooperate with the court, which it says is politically motivated. Preliminary U.N. investigations implicated Syrian officials.
Chatah, a Sunni Muslim, was a vocal critic of Hezbollah.
In his most recent blog post, Chatah wrote: Fact number 1: A united and peaceful Syria ruled by Assad is simply not possible anymore.It has been like that for some time.The status quo ante cannot be restored. Iran and Hezbollah realize this more than anyone else.
Fact number 2: The Assad regime is incapable of adapting to a powersharing arrangement as contemplated by the Geneva principles. The regime is brittle and fragile as it is brutal and ruthless. It can break but cannot bend. Assad knows it and Iran knows it.
Fact number 3: A free and democratic Syria would be a strategic disaster for Tehran. If given a choice, the Syrian people would be certain to sever their country’s geopolitical alliance with the Islamic Republic and stop providing a geographic corridor to Iran’s military arm in Lebanon..
Fact number 4: Iran’s second best alternative to the irretrievable status quo ante is simply a protracted war. This is now Iran’s victory strategy. A bloody and chaotic Syrian theater will still be usable by Iran and Hezbollah more flexibly and efficiently than their western enemies. Remember the civil war in Lebanon?
Fact number 5: A protracted war in Syria will help terrorism flourish even more. Both the kind manipulated used by the regime to blackmail the west and the “authentic” strain that festers and spreads in open wounds, like opportunistic parasites.
Conclusion: If Iran’s militant ideology and hegemonic ambitions and radical “Islamic” terrorism are the two strategic threats that need to be overcome, then the policy towards Syria should aim at bringing to a quick end both the devastating war and Assad’s rule. Humanitarian considerations aside, any policy that is based on the premise that a protracted conflict in Syria is costless is misguided and dangerous. It is exactly what Iran wants and it will help the scourge of terrorism to thrive.
Time magazine reports: Speeches by Hizballah head Hassan Nasrallah are usually predictable affairs. Each time he speaks, be it in front of the podium or from a secure, undisclosed location, the bearded, turbaned and bespectacled leader blends fiery rhetoric, anti-Western exhortations and bombast in a familiar pattern designed to inspire his followers, fire up new recruits and strike fear into enemy Israel. But in an interview with Lebanese TV station OTV late on Tuesday night, he went radically off script, zeroing in on a new target for his rhetorical darts: Saudi Arabia.
Nasrallah rarely mentions Saudi Arabia by name, only referring to the monarchy in vague terms in order to maintain plausible deniability. But that all changed on Tuesday, when he accused Saudi agents of being behind the suicide-bomb attack on the Iranian embassy in Beirut last month that claimed 23 lives. (The assassination of a senior Hizballah commander on Wednesday, though the assailants remain unknown, deepened the group’s sense of embattlement.) In doing so he has openly declared a war that has long been fought in the shadows, first in Lebanon where Hizballah-allied parties are at a political impasse with the Saudi-backed Future Movement of Saad Hariri, and now in Syria, where Hizballah, with Iranian assistance, is fighting on the side of President Bashar Assad against Saudi-backed rebels. “This is the first time I have ever seen such a direct attack [by Nasrallah] against Saudi Arabia,” says Lebanon-based political analyst Talal Atrissi. “This was the formal declaration of a war that has been going on in Syria since Saudi first started supporting the rebels.” [Continue reading...]
Haaretz reports: The death of Hassan al-Laqis, a senior Hezbollah commander who was killed on Tuesday in what looks like a clean and especially professional assassination in Dahieh, the Shi’ite quarter of Beirut, is the biggest operational blow to the Lebanese organization since the death of Imad Mughniyeh. Mughniyeh, who was described as the Hezbollah chief-of-staff, was assassinated in Damascus in February 2008. At the time Hezbollah blamed Israel, which refrained from responding. On Wednesday morning the organization blamed Israel for the assassination of Laqis as well.
Laqis, one of Hezbollah’s veteran military leaders, has been familiar to Western intelligence services since the 1980s. Intelligence officials have described him in the past as a “brilliant mind” who played a combined role in the Shi’ite organization, which could be compared to the head of Israel Defense Forces’ research and development as well as technology and logistics branch.
Laqis was knowledgeable of and involved in all the organization’s operational secrets – from the acquisition and development of advanced weapons to the establishment of classified communication systems to Hezbollah’s operative plans. His death strips Hezbollah of a “intelligence source” – a person whose experience and widespread connections to Syrian and Iranian intelligence organizations served Hezbollah well for almost three decades. [Continue reading...]
McClatchy reports: A Western intelligence agency gave Lebanese government authorities audio evidence that al Qaida-style militants were planning attacks on targets related to Hezbollah over the last two weeks, but the warnings, which were passed to Hezbollah, failed to prevent the bombing Tuesday of the Iranian Embassy, which killed more than 20 people.
The warning, which tracks similar cautions from American intelligence to the Lebanese government first reported by McClatchy in July, was first reported by the Lebanese newspaper al Safir. Lebanese and Western intelligence officials confirmed the report.
The report did not identify the Western intelligence agency, but it said that audio the agency gave to the Lebanese government caught a Saudi organizer with links to al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula attempting to coordinate an attack with a local militant group, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades. The targets were associated with Hezbollah and Iran in retaliation for their support for the government of President Bashar Assad in neighboring Syria.
According to a local security official who asked to remain anonymous because he did not have permission to talk to reporters, the captured conversation was between Ahmed al Suedi, a Saudi national who’s been described as AQAP’s liaison and coordinator in Lebanon, and Abdullah Azzam’s top leader, Majed al Majed.
“We were given a specific warning about these men and a plot,” the security official said. “That information was passed on to all important parties as we are obligated to do as the Lebanese government.”
Al Jazeera reports: Shia fighters from Hezbollah will keep fighting in Syria’s conflict alongside President Bashar al-Assad’s forces as long as necessary, the group’s leader Hassan Nasrallah said.
Hezbollah has helped turn the tide in Assad’s favour this year, leading the recapture of the town of Qusair and fighting alongside government forces south of Damascus and in the northern city of Aleppo.
“As long as the reasons [to fight in Syria] remain, our presence there will remain,” Nasrallah said on Thursday in a speech in front of tens of thousands of Lebanese Shia marking the religious ceremony of Ashoura in southern Beirut.
“Our fighters are present on Syrian soil… to confront all the dangers it faces from the international, regional and takfiri attack on this country and region,” Nasrallah said, referring to the self-declared jihadist rebels fighting in Syria.
Takfiri is a term for a hardline Sunni Muslim who sees other Muslims as infidels, often as a justification for killing them. [Continue reading...]
The Times of Israel reports: Israel conveyed a series of bitter protests to the White House and to others in the US administration over the weekend over the Obama administration’s confirmation that it was the Israeli Air Force that struck a military base near the Syrian port city of Latakia last Wednesday.
Israel has not acknowledged carrying out the strike, one of half a dozen such attacks widely ascribed to Israel in recent months, but an Obama administration official told CNN on Thursday that Israeli warplanes had indeed attacked the Syrian base, and that the target was “missiles and related equipment” set for delivery to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
This US confirmation, which was not the first case of the administration leaking word of Israeli strikes in Syria, risked causing a flare-up that could “endanger the security of Israel and the region as a whole,” Israel claimed in its protest messages to the US according to a report in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper on Sunday.
Israel’s fury was conveyed directly to the White House, as well as during meetings and conversations between senior Israeli officials and their US counterparts in the Pentagon, the CIA and the State Department, the report said.
Israel’s shocked complaints produced no American explanation or reaction whatsoever, the report went on, which Israeli officials ascribe to embarrassment on behalf of the administration. Israel believes the leaks may be “a consequence of negligence.” [Continue reading...]
Reuters reports: Israel said it would not allow advanced weapons to fall into the hands of Hezbollah, after a raid on Syria that opposition sources said had hit an air force garrison believed to be holding Russian-made missiles destined for the militant group.
Israel has a clear policy on Syria and will continue to enforce it, officials said on Friday, after U.S. sources said Israel had launched a new attack on its warring neighbor.
Israel declined to comment on leaks to U.S. media that its planes had hit a Syrian base near the port of Latakia, targeting missiles that it thought were destined for its Lebanese enemy, Hezbollah.
“We have said many times that we will not allow the transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah,” said Home Front Defence Minister Gilad Erdan, a member of the inner security cabinet which met hours before the alleged Israeli attack.
Reuters reports: In the photograph the two robed men stand shoulder-to-shoulder, one tall and erect, the other more heavyset. Both smile for the camera. The picture from Tehran is a rare record of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei meeting Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi’ite paramilitary group.
Taken in April during a discreet visit by the Hezbollah chief to his financial and ideological masters, the photograph captured a turning point in Syria’s civil war and the broader struggle between Sunnis and Shi’ites, the two main branches of Islam. It was the moment when Iran made public its desire for Hezbollah to join the battle to help save Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, diplomats said. At the time, Assad and his Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, were losing ground to an advancing Sunni insurgency.
Within days of returning home, Nasrallah gave a televised speech making it clear that Hezbollah would fight alongside Assad to prevent Syria falling “into the hands” of Sunni jihadi radicals, the United States and Israel. The very survival of the Shi’ites was at stake, he said.
Soon afterwards, fighters from Hezbollah – which until then had largely stayed out of its neighbour’s civil war – entered Syria. In June they helped Assad’s forces recapture the strategic town of Qusair and other territory, turning the war in Assad’s favour.
Regional security officials told Reuters there are now between 2,000 and 4,000 Hezbollah fighters, experts and reservists in Syria. One Lebanese security official said a central command in Iran led by the Revolutionary Guards directs Hezbollah operations in Syria in close coordination with the Syrian authorities. Another source said Hezbollah had “hit squads” of highly trained fighters in Syria whose task is to assassinate military leaders among the Sunni rebels.
Hezbollah declined to comment for this report on its involvement in Syria. Nasrallah has previously said it is necessary for Hezbollah to fight Sunni radicals allied to al Qaeda.
Officials in Iran did not respond to requests for comment. Last week, Iran’s foreign ministry spokeswoman, Marzieh Afkham, said that Iran had no official military presence in Syria, but was providing humanitarian assistance. Last September, Mohammad Ali Jafari, head of the Revolutionary Guards, said some members of Iran’s elite Quds force were in Syria but that it did not constitute “a military presence.”
Hezbollah’s role in Syria has ramifications not just in its home in Lebanon but across the region. If Assad wins, Iran’s influence along the shores of the Mediterranean will grow. If he loses, Hezbollah and Iran’s reach will likely be damaged. For some members of the group, the fight is an existential one. [Continue reading...]
McClatchy reports: The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency warned Lebanese officials last week that al Qaida-linked groups are planning a campaign of bombings that will target Beirut’s Hezbollah-dominated southern suburbs as well as other political targets associated with the group or its allies in Syria, Lebanese officials said Monday.
The unusual warning – U.S. government officials are barred from directly contacting Hezbollah, which the U.S. has designated an international terrorist organization – was passed from the CIA’s Beirut station chief to several Lebanese security and intelligence officials in a meeting late last week with the understanding that it would be passed to Hezbollah, Lebanese officials said.
Hezbollah officials acknowledged the warning and took steps to tighten security in the southern suburbs that are known locally as Dahiya.
“Yes, a warning came from the CIA,” said a Hezbollah internal security commander who spoke on the condition that he not be identified because he was not authorized to talk to reporters. “They passed us this information through the mukhabarat (military intelligence), but we had our own information about the bombs.” [Continue reading...]
Michael Young writes: Hezbollah’s deepening involvement in the Syrian war is a high-risk venture. Many see this as a mistake by the party, and it may well be. Qusayr will be small change compared to Aleppo, where the rebels are well entrenched and benefit from supply lines leading to Turkey. In the larger regional rivalry between Iran and Turkey, the Turkish army and intelligence services have an interest in helping make things very difficult for Hezbollah and the Syrian army in northern Syria, particularly after the car-bomb attack in Reyhanli in May.
Many will be watching closely to see how the current crisis in Turkey affects Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ability to react to the Syrian situation, particularly if the epicenter of the fighting shifts to Aleppo. Erdogan has faced the displeasure among many in Turkey’s southern border areas with their government’s policy in Syria. At the same time, a defeat of the Syrian rebels in and around Aleppo is not something that Turkey can easily swallow so near to its borders, particularly if Hezbollah is instrumental in the fighting.
Hezbollah is willing to take heavy casualties in Syria, if this allows it to rescue the Assad regime. The real question is what time frame we are talking about, and how this affects the party’s vital interests elsewhere. For now, Hezbollah has entered Syria with no exit strategy. [Continue reading...]