Thousands flee as #Lebanon battles #Syrian militants

The Associated Press reports: Thousands of Lebanese civilians and Syrian refugees crammed into cars and pickup trucks fled Monday as Lebanese artillery pounded a border town that had been overrun by militants from neighboring Syria.

The civilian exodus came in the early morning hours during a relative lull in fighting and just a few hours later the bombardment around the town of Arsal had reached an intensity of three shells every minute.

The fighting is the most serious spillover of violence from Syria’s civil war into Lebanon, compounding fears that tiny Lebanon is fast becoming a new front in its neighbor’s conflict, now in its third year. The government has rushed reinforcements to scene, including dozens of armored personal carriers and tanks.


At Iran’s urging, Hezbollah breaks with Assad to support Hamas

As Hamas fighters battle on their home turf against the armed forces of the most militarized state on the planet, most of observers in the region who employ the term “axis of resistance” should have little trouble acknowledging that Hamas is a genuine resistance movement — except that is for Bashar al-Assad.

A few days ago Assad mocked Hamas as “amateurs who wear the mask of resistance.”

Hezbollah, whose own claim to be a resistance movement has been undermined by its willingness to help prop up Assad, has nevertheless reaffirmed its support for Hamas.

Reuters reports:

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah pledged full support on Friday to the Palestinian group Hamas in its conflict with Israel despite a deep rift between the two militant organisations over the civil war in Syria.

“We in Hezbollah will be unstinting in all forms of support, assistance and aid that we are able to provide,” Nasrallah said.

“We feel we are true partners with this resistance, a partnership of jihad, brotherhood, hope, pain, sacrifice and fate, because their victory is all our victory, and their defeat is all our defeat,” he said.

Nasrallah delivered his speech in public in Hezbollah’s stronghold of south Beirut, a rare event for the militant Shi’ite Lebanese leader who has lived in hiding, fearing for his security, after Hezbollah’s 2006 war with Israel.

That inconclusive 34-day conflict won Hezbollah sweeping support around the Arab world for standing up to Israel’s military superiority. But its more recent military action in neighbouring Syria has eroded that regional backing.

Shi’ite Hezbollah has sent thousands of fighters into Syria to fight alongside President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, helping turn the tide against overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim rebels.

But the Hamas leadership, once based in Damascus, refused to support Assad as he confronted with force peaceful protests which broke out in 2011 and descended into an insurgency and civil war. Since then 160,000 people have been killed.

Adnan Abu Amer reports for Al-Monitor:

Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah called [Hamas leader Khaled] Meshaal on July 20. This was the first official contact between Hezbollah and Hamas since April, a Hamas official informed Al-Monitor.

Hezbollah’s official website reported that, during his phone call with Meshaal, “Nasrallah praised the steadfastness of the resistance fighters in Gaza,” stressing that he “stands next to the Palestinian resistance and supports its conditions to end the battle.”

Al-Monitor contacted a Palestinian official in Lebanon who mediated Hamas’ troubled relationship with Hezbollah, who said, “It is no secret that the relationship between the officials has not been great because of the crisis in Syria. But Iran contacting Meshaal through the head of the Shura Council Ali Larijani, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and a senior Revolutionary Guard officer on July 7 encouraged Nasrallah to call Meshaal despite the Syrian boycott of Hamas. Therefore, Nasrallah contacting Meshaal has not had positive echoes in Damascus.”


Syria’s allies are stretched by widening war

The Wall Street Journal reports: The Lebanese movement Hezbollah, facing a heavy strain on its resources, is recruiting more fighters in Syria and bringing in fresh but inexperienced forces from Lebanon to shore up Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

In the past year, Hezbollah’s battle-tested fighters helped Syrian forces retake territory around the capital Damascus and other key cities such as Homs and Aleppo, paving the way for Mr. Assad to win a third, seven-year term as president in elections last month.

But Hezbollah members and people involved in the group’s operations in Syria said the militant group is now stretched thin by two conflicts involving its Shiite allies that threaten to erode, if not undo, its successes in Syria.

A Sunni rebellion against the Shiite-dominated government in neighboring Iraq is drawing home Iraqi Shiites who have been fighting alongside Hezbollah in Syria, according to pro-government militiamen in Syria.

On Monday, Islamic State, the extremist group leading the fresh insurgency in Iraq, captured more territory in Syria by routing rival rebel factions from the city of Deir-Ezzour, according to Syrian activists and a spokesman for the rebel umbrella group known as the Free Syrian Army. The city is the seat of the resource-rich province of Deir-Ezzour bordering Iraq and the conquest gave Islamic State control of nearly 80% of the province. [Continue reading...]


Iran’s role in Syria

Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel, directors of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, interviewed by IranWire:

How does the Syrian opposition interpret Iran’s involvement in Syria?

Nader Hashemi: The Syrian opposition understandably views Iran as an enemy state, which is the biggest backer and sustainer of Assad’s criminal enterprise. The fingerprints of the Islamic Republic are all over the atrocities in Syria. The full story of Iran’s involvement in Syria has yet to be told. If we ever get to the point where there’s a full investigation, we’ll likely see that Iran’s involvement has been much larger and more significant than has been publicly admitted and reported. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that Bashar al-Assad is hugely in debt to the Iranian regime for its survival, increasingly so as the conflict has gone on.

Danny Postel: The Hezbollah’s Syrian surge, for example, in 2013, was critical. It came at a time when Assad was very vulnerable, and that’s why Hezbollah was drawn in. And we now have reports of Iraqi fighters in Syria, which Iran has played a direct role in, and Afghan fighters.

Hashemi: There was a piece in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago reporting that the Iranian government is paying a $500 bribe to Afghan Shia refugees in Iran to fight in Syria, which is quite revealing. This suggests that the Syrian regime does not have enough troops to do its fighting, and must rely on external forces to do its dirty work. It also suggests that the Assad regime is not as strong as it, and its backers, claim it to be. It does have a weakness in terms of fighters, otherwise why would you have thousands of Hezbollah troops doing some of the regime’s heavy lifting?

If you read the Iranian press, one month ago, the Iranian deputy foreign minister Amir Abdollahian was giving a talk at the University of Tehran where he admitted publicly that Assad was about to fall, and then Iran stepped up its involvement to save the regime. That most likely happened in late 2012 or early 2013, when it looked like the regime was on very shaky ground.

Iran is invested in supporting the Assad regime right till the end, and they’re doing it not for reasons of religious doctrine or political ideology. It’s pure realpolitik. The Iranian regime realizes that the survival of the Assad regime is central to Iran’s national security and defense doctrine — particularly with respect to Israel. If there’s a toppling of the Assad regime, Iran’s regional clout — specifically its access to Hezbollah — diminishes significantly. [Continue reading...]


Syria refugees set to exceed a third of Lebanon’s population

Reuters reports: Lebanon faces the threat of political and economic collapse as the number of refugees pouring in from Syria is set to exceed a third of the population, Social Affairs Minister Rashid Derbas said on Thursday.

Derbas said the total was expected to hit 1.5 million by the end of the year, an excessive burden for a country of just 4 million people.

He said the influx of refugees fleeing Syria’s civil war will have cost Lebanon’s already fragile economy around $7.5 billion between 2012 and 2014. Border communities hosting Syrian refugees were under particular pressure because of the increase in people willing to work for low wages.

“Unemployment doubled, especially among unspecialized or unskilled labor in those mostly poor areas,” he said, warning that the refugee crisis “threatens to take us to an economic, political and even security collapse.”

The turmoil next door has not only hurt Lebanon’s economy, but has aggravated sectarian tensions and fueled violence. It currently hosts around 1.1 million registered Syrian refugees. [Continue reading...]


ISIS, Israel and a nuclear threat

​While no one knows yet how far ISIS’s dominion will extend or the true magnitude of the threat it poses across the Middle East, one of the wildest recent reports comes from a former Bush administration official and current staff writer for WorldNetDaily, Michael Maloof.

The former defense department employee who has a history of promoting bogus intelligence, has an “exclusive” headlined: “Iraq invaders threaten nuke attack on Israel.”

The well-organized army of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, claims it has access to nuclear weapons and a will to use them to “liberate” Palestine from Israel as part of its “Islamic Spring,” according to a WND source in the region.

Wow! One minute we see ISIS proudly driving around in American-made Humvees and the next they are threatening a nuclear strike on Israel?

Who is Maloof’s “source in the region” making this extraordinary claim?

It turns out it’s Franklin Lamb, an American political activist and retired law professor based in Beirut whose reporting/commentary appears regularly at Counterpunch and PressTV, among other places.

The WND source said ISIS appears “eager” to fight Israeli armed forces “in the near future despite expectation that the regime will use nuclear weapons.”

“Do you think that we do not have access to nuclear devices?” Lamb quoted the ISIS member as saying. “The Zionists know that we do, and if we ever believe they are about to use theirs, we will not hesitate. After the Zionists are gone, Palestine will have to be decontaminated and rebuilt just like areas where there has been radiation released.”

Neither Lamb, his ISIS source, nor Maloof address the fact that in this nuclear scenario, the Palestinians could hardly avoiding meeting the same fate as the Israelis. Neither does Maloof report the fact that Lamb was talking to his source inside a Palestinian refugee camp. Go figure.

Although Maloof’s report, which was posted on the WND website on June 23 is billed as an “exclusive,” every single quote from Lamb can be found in a report Lamb himself posted at Counterpunch on June 20. Indeed every single quote appears in the original in the same order as Maloof used them as he presumably pasted together his “exclusive.”

Having gleaned the raw material for his piece from Lamb — who knows whether the two men have ever been in direct communication — Maloof then goes on to embellish the story with his own unsourced claims, such as that the Saudis have “provided billions of dollars to ISIS” along with speculation that Saudi Arabia already possesses Pakistani-made nuclear weapons. (Anyone who like Maloof believes that ISIS depends on Saudi funding or any other major source of foreign financing should read yesterday’s McClatchy report on the group’s self-funded business structure.)

Alarm bells must be ringing in Israel in the face of this new existential threat — but apparently not.

On the contrary, Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu is quite content to see the region go up in flames.

Echoing calls from many quarters in the United States, the Israeli leader wants the U.S. to remain on the sidelines.

Threatening a borderless conflict between “extremist Shi’ites,” funded by leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and equally extreme Sunnis — a soft “alliance” between ISIS and al Qaeda — the Israeli prime minister suggested the United States should largely stay out of the fight, and instead allow the parties to weaken one another.

“Don’t strengthen either of them. Weaken both,” Netanyahu said.

This argument is a reprise of a similar view in Washington that was being applied to Syria a year ago by some of those who then opposed military intervention after the August chemical attacks. At that time, the military strategist, Edward Luttwak, wrote:

There is only one outcome that the United States can possibly favor: an indefinite draw.

The risk Israel faces of being destroyed in a nuclear strike from ISIS might be minimal, but what should concern everyone at this moment are the repercussions from a propaganda war that ISIS is already winning.

Eight years ago after surviving the extensive bombing of Southern Beirut, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah was being celebrated across the Arab world by Shia and Sunnis alike as the great champion of Resistance.

A war that left hundreds of Lebanese civilians dead and many thousands homeless was nevertheless hailed (at least by Hezbollah’s leadership) as a “divine victory.”

The success of ISIS has gone far beyond that kind of symbolic victory and there must be many young radicals across the region who view old guard resistance movements such as Hezbollah and Hamas as spent forces — organizations whose principal accomplishment across the decades has been self-preservation.

In Lamb’s article, which is based on interviews with ISIS members and sympathizers in Ain al-Hilweh, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon (where ISIS is referred to by the acronym derived from its Arabic name, DAASH) he writes:

Several reasons were given as to why Palestinians should hold out hope for ISIS succeeding in their cause when all other Arab, Muslim, and Western claimed Resistance supporters have been abject failures and invariably end up benefiting the Zionist occupation regime terrorizing Palestine. “All countries in this region are playing the sectarian card just as they have long played the Palestinian card but the difference with ISIS is that we are serious about Palestine and they are not. Tel Aviv will fall as fast as Mosul when the time is right”, a DAASH ally explained.

When asked about Hezbollah’s 22 day war with the Zionists in South Lebanon in July of 2006 and its sacrifices in terms of lives which is to this day widely believed to be a victory for the “Resistance” and a blow to the Zionist occupation. An angry middle aged Iraqi Baathist, now a ISIS heavy weapons trainer, interrupted, “The difference between DAASH and Hezbollah is that we would have fought our way to Al Quds [Jerusalem] in 2006 and established a permanent organization. Hezbollah quit too soon and they will only fight if and when Iran tells them to.” He added, “What has the Hezbollah Resistance ever done for the Palestinians in Lebanon except resist their civil rights in Lebanon. Should Palestinians believe them?” Another gentleman insisted, “DAASH will fight where no one else is willing.”

A report in the Assad/Hezbollah-friendly Al-Akhbar from the north Lebanon city of Tripoli attempts to downplay the level of local support for ISIS, yet those who might not choose to fight in its ranks may at some point nevertheless form a significant welcoming party.

Upon sitting with vendors selling vegetables near the Abu Ali Roundabout in Tripoli, one comes out with the impression that ISIS is participating in the World Cup. In between every few cars covered with the Brazilian and German flags, one will spot a car displaying ISIS’ black banner. And just like many like to emulate their favorite football players in their hairstyles, tattoos, and so on, some youths in the city like to emulate ISIS fighters, in their hairstyle, loose beards, and miserly look.

News of ISIS’ victories overshadow the news about its fatwas, the consequences of its excommunication of its opponents, and the nebulous nature of its religious authority. Vendors asking their customers, “Who are you with?” – referring to the World Cup – often hear back, “with ISIS.”

As ISIS advances on the ground wiping away the boundary between Syria and Iraq, it is simultaneously crossing more distant borders, gaining a foothold in the imagination of those who dream of a caliphate and of capturing Jerusalem.

While opposition to U.S. intervention in a crisis that was itself in part triggered by an earlier American intervention comes frequently through expressions of opposition to war, paradoxically, those who insist we started this are also now saying, it’s not our problem.

Providing further evidence that this has indeed become a borderless conflict, there are reports today that Syria has conducted air strikes against ISIS positions in Iraq.

Bashar al-Assad, Hassan Nasrallah, Nouri al-Maliki, Muqtada al-Sadr, Ali Khamenei, Qasem Soleimani — are these the men who are going to bring stability to the Middle East and pacify the threat from ISIS? I think not.

Francesca Borri, an independent journalist covering the war in Syria, recently spoke on Skype to M., an ISIS fighter in Al-Bab, north east of Allepo:

I asked M. if his movement was bent on redrawing the map of the Middle East, to which he replied, “There is no map. … Where you see borders, we see only your interests.”

M., embodying the ISIS ideology, railed against the aspirations for democracy in the Arab world.

“Look at Egypt. Look at the way it ended for Muslims who cast their vote for [deposed President] Mohammed Morsi and believed in your democracy, in your lies. Democracy doesn’t exist. Do you think you are free? The West is ruled by banks, not by parliaments, and you know that. You know that you’re just a pawn, except you have no courage. You think of yourself, your job, your house … because you know you have no power. But fortunately, the jihad has started. Islam will get to you and bring you freedom.”

It is to be expected that an ISIS fighter would pour scorn on democracy, yet these days democracy’s genuine defenders seem increasingly hard to find.


17 ISIS suspects held in Beirut for suspected assassination plot

The New York Times reports: Lebanese security forces arrested 17 men in two Beirut hotels on Friday on suspicion that they were plotting to assassinate a prominent Lebanese Shiite leader, a government official said, describing an attack that could inflame sectarian conflict across the Middle East.

Investigators are exploring whether the men intended to kill Nabih Berri, the speaker of Parliament, who has been a leading Shiite political figure in Lebanon for decades, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity under government rules. Intelligence reports identified the men as members of a newly established militant cell in Beirut that was believed to include foreigners, the official said, adding that there were suspicions that they belonged to the Islamic State inIraq and Syria, the Sunni militant group known as ISIS.

Such a plot would be a bold and dangerous escalation by ISIS, which wields extremist and sectarian ideology and brutal tactics in its drive to erase the existing nations in the region and create a fundamentalist Islamic caliphate in their place. The group’s insurgent fighters, who already control large parts of northeastern Syria, swept across northern Iraq last week, slaughtering captured Shiite soldiers and proudly broadcasting the killings on the Internet.

Spreading their attacks to Lebanon, the region’s most religiously diverse country, could intensify the destabilizing sectarian conflict. The most powerful force in the country is Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group and political party, which is allied both with Mr. Berri’s Amal movement and with President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, where the chaos of a three-year insurgency has provided fertile ground for ISIS to grow. [Continue reading...]

Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal reported: In Lebanon on Tuesday, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah warned that his forces were capable of sending fighters to Iraq to support Mr. Maliki, in comments made to As-Safir, a local newspaper sympathetic to Hezbollah. Mr. Nasrallah batted away concerns that Hezbollah is spread too thin fighting in Syria and protecting against Israel in southern Lebanon to join the fight in Iraq.

“We are ready to sacrifice martyrs in Iraq five times more than what we sacrificed in Syria, in order to protect shrines, because they are much more important than [Syria's holy sites],” Mr. Nasrallah said.

Hezbollah justifies its presence in Syria in part by claiming that it is protecting holy sites important to Shiite Islam, particularly the Sayeda Zeinab shrine near Damascus, against groups like ISIS who seek to destroy them. The same argument has also been used by Iraqi Shiites militias and the elite Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps fighting in Syria.

The Lebanese official close to Hezbollah’s leadership, however, played down the withdrawal of Iraqi Shiite militias from Syria said. “Just as Hezbollah is prepared to fight Israel and reserve forces to fight Israel, it is prepared for Syria,” the official said. But he said Hezbollah is too occupied trying to defend against Sunni extremist groups in Syria and Lebanon to commit significant forces to Iraq.

Since last week, Hezbollah has increased security around its stronghold of Dahiyeh, a suburb of Beirut, out of concerns that ISIS gains in Iraq will inspire attacks in Lebanon, Lebanese security officials said.

Underscoring Hezbollah’s fears, ISIS recently published a map showing the group’s black flag over Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Kuwait. ISIS has been able to create a continuous state spanning Iraq and Syria with battlefield gains made over recent weeks.


Shiite militias decamping from Syria to fight in Iraq

The Wall Street Journal reports: Iraqi Shiite militias that have provided crucial support to President Bashar al-Assad on Syria’s battlefields are remobilizing to Iraq to help the government there fight off opposition forces closing in on Baghdad, diplomats and Syrian rebels say.

The mobilization away from Syria started in late December when antigovernment forces seized Iraq’s western Anbar province, but has recently gained pace as militants have taken more territory, including Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. Fighters from Hezbollah are filling the vacuum left in Syria by the withdrawing Iraqi militias, according to Syrian rebels and an official close to the Lebanese militant and political group.

Many of these Shiite militants are leaving Syria to fight alongside the Iraqi army, say Western and Arab diplomats, increasing the sectarian undertone of the conflict. The militants’ mobilization underscores accusations from Iraqi Sunnis that the Shiite-led government in Baghdad is dragging state institutions into a bloody sectarian war. [Continue reading...]


What is Hezbollah fighting for (apart from Hezbollah)?

The New York Times reports: For many months, Shiite communities across Lebanon lived in fear as car bombs tore through their neighborhoods, punishing Hezbollah and its supporters for sending fighters to aid President Bashar al-Assad in the civil war in neighboring Syria.

But Hezbollah succeeded on the Syrian battlefield in chasing rebels from the border towns where many of the attacks originated. The bombings have since stopped, leaving Lebanon’s Shiites grateful for Hezbollah’s intervention and luring a new wave of aspiring young fighters to the group’s training camps.

“The situation here has changed 180 degrees,” said Saad Hamade, a scion of one of largest clans here. “The whole story is over for us.”

While the civil war in Syria remains a grinding battle of attrition, for Hezbollah more than a year of combat has produced a new sense of purpose that extends beyond battling Israel to supporting its allies and Shiite brethren across the Middle East. And although its victories have come at a great cost in lives and resources, it has also gained the rare opportunity to display its military mettle and earn new battlefield experience.

“The fighting in Syria could change the entire balance in the region, and Hezbollah has intervened to prevent the formation of a new balance of power against it and against Iran and its allies,” said Talal Atrissi, a Lebanese analyst who is close to the movement. “This is its strategic vision.”

But the fighting has also diluted the resources that used to go exclusively to facing Israel, exacerbated sectarian divisions in the region, and alienated large segments of the majority Sunni population who once embraced Hezbollah as a liberation force. Some Sunnis now openly refer to the “the party of God” — Hezbollah’s name in Arabic — as “the party of Satan.”

Even Hezbollah’s supporters acknowledge that it is unclear when and how the group will be able to disengage from Syria. [Continue reading...]


Assad: ‘The project of political Islam has failed’

AFP reports: The “project of political Islam has failed,” Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad said on Monday, calling for the separation of religion from politics, state television said.

Assad’s regime has been battling an uprising that has come to be dominated by Islamists, ranging from moderates to radicals, who want to see Syria run as an Islamic state.

“The project of political Islam has failed, and there should be no mixing between political and religious work,” he said in comments on the 67th anniversary of the founding of his Baath party.

These are the observations of a man whose life has been saved by the Islamic Republic of Iran and Hezbollah. If Assad really opposes the mixing of political and religious work, how could two of the region’s preeminent proponents and practitioners of political Islam still be his chief allies?


Fueled by Syrian war, hostilities surge in Lebanon

a13-iconThe Associated Press reports: Sunni Muslim demonstrators used burning tires to close key roads across Lebanon Tuesday to protest a blockade of their brethren by Shiite gunmen, officials said, as the country struggles to keep a lid on simmering sectarian tensions enflamed by the civil war in neighboring Syria.

In one of the most ominous signs, an AP reporter saw protesters marching among cars stopped at a Beirut roadblock and warning drivers with Shiite emblems on their vehicles that Sunnis would not be cowed by the powerful Shiite militant Hezbollah group. There was no violence, and all of the cars eventually moved on unscathed.

Lebanon, which is still haunted by its own 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, has been deeply polarized by the current conflict in Syria. Lebanese Sunnis largely support the predominantly Sunni opposition in Syria, while Shiites have backed President Bashar Assad’s government.

That dynamic has sent sectarian hatreds soaring in Lebanon, particularly since the country’s most powerful political and military force, Hezbollah, dispatched its fighters last year to Syria to bolster Assad’s forces. Many Sunnis also resent Hezbollah’s unmatched political and military position in Lebanon. [Continue reading...]


Why Assad will eventually lose

f13-iconBalint 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...]


Hezbollah leader Nasrallah vows to keep fighters in Syria

n13-iconBBC 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...]


Lebanon ‘holds’ al-Qaeda linked group leader

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...]


Saudis pledge $3 billion to support Lebanon’s army

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...]


Lebanon: The meaning of the Shatah assassination

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...]


Anti-Assad Lebanese ex-minister killed in Beirut bomb

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.


Growing hostility between Hezbollah and Saudi Arabia

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...]