U.S. conducting military operations in Lebanon

Nicholas Blanford reports: The United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM) is operating unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in support of Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) operations against Sunni militant groups dug into mountains along the country’s northeast border with Syria, several diplomatic and military sources have confirmed to IHS Jane’s.

Two Aerosonde Mk 4.7 UAVs are being flown out of the LAF’s Hamat Air Base on the coast, 45 km north of Beirut, the sources said.

The area of operational activity is in the northeast corner of the country, a region of arid mountainous terrain that spans the Lebanon-Syria border where militant groups such as the Islamic State and the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra are based.

“The LAF has been very aggressive in tasking Aerosonde [UAVs] to fly missions,” a diplomatic source told IHS Jane’s on condition of anonymity. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS may soon declare Islamic emirate in Lebanon

Daily Star: ISIS is preparing military plans to declare an Islamic emirate in Lebanon very soon to serve as a geographical extension of the so-called “Islamic State” announced by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Iraq last year, security sources said.

ISIS fighters have demanded support from the militant group in northern Syria to achieve this goal, the sources said.

They added that the ISIS command has begun preparations to set up a military organizational committee tasked with running Lebanese affairs and considering Lebanon as part of its state.

However, ISIS is facing difficulties in choosing a Lebanese commander for this mission. The reported appointment of the fugitive preacher Ahmad al-Assir for this post was merely a trial balloon, the sources said.

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Hezbollah’s sectarian loyalties outweigh its commitment to the Palestinian cause

The Associated Press reports: Hezbollah’s ambitions are spreading far beyond its Lebanon home as the militant Shiite movement appears increasingly bent on taking on Sunni foes across the Middle East. It has sent thousands of its fighters into Syria and senior military advisers to Iraq, helped Shiite rebels rise to power in Yemen and threatened Bahrain over its abuse of the Shiite majority.

But the regional aspirations also are taking a heavy toll and threatening to undermine Hezbollah’s support at home. The group has suffered significant casualties, there is talk of becoming overstretched, and judging by the events of recent days, even a vague sense that the appetite for fighting the Israelis is waning.

In the recent confrontation, Israel struck first, purportedly destroying a Hezbollah unit near the front line of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Among the seven dead on Jan. 18 were an Iranian general, a top Hezbollah commander and the son of another former commander in chief. A heavy Hezbollah retaliation appeared inevitable.

Yet when it came last Wednesday, Hezbollah’s revenge was relatively modest: two Israeli soldiers dead, seven wounded. The choice of location — a disputed piece of land excluded from a U.N. resolution that ended the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel — suggested to some that Hezbollah’s mind remains focused on more distant fronts. [Continue reading…]

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After revelation about CIA-Mossad assassination, shadow war with Hezbollah may intensify

The Washington Post reports: The revelation that the CIA cooperated with Israel’s Mossad spy agency in the assassination of a top Hezbollah military commander in 2008 is poised to intensify a shadow war with the militant Lebanese group that could involve retaliation against U.S. interests around the world, analysts said.

In an exclusive story published online Friday night, The Washington Post reported that the U.S. intelligence agency coordinated with Mossad in carrying out a February 2008 car bombing in the Syrian capital, Damascus, that killed Imad Mughniyah.

The militant commander was implicated in killing hundreds of Americans in attacks that included the U.S. Embassy bombing in Beirut in 1983 and assaults on American forces in Iraq by Iranian-backed militias, according to the Post’s report, which cited multiple former U.S. officials. The killing of Mughniyah, a key figure behind attacks on scores of Israelis, was approved by officials in the George W. Bush administration, according to the report.

The report said the operation required extensive planning and cooperation between the two agencies. One of official is quoted as saying that operatives detonated some 25 practice bombs at a CIA facility in North Carolina “to make sure we got it right,” killing Mughniyah while avoiding civilian causalities. The real bomb was triggered remotely in Tel Aviv by Mossad agents, according to the report, but CIA operatives in Damascus acted as spotters and could have called off the attack.

Samar Hajj, a Lebanese analyst who is close to Hezbollah, said the report reinforced the impression — true or not — among officials in the Iranian-backed group that covert Israeli operations are signed off in Washington. [Continue reading…]

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Escalation would benefit neither Israel nor Hezbollah

The Daily Star reports: Within the space of a few hours, two Israeli soldiers were dead, and Wednesday had turned from just another weekday to the day that Lebanese started asking themselves: Are we about to see a repeat of 2006?

That year saw a full-on war with Israel develop following a deadly cross-border attack by Hezbollah on an Israeli patrol. The 2006 war, which ended up costing more than 1,000 lives and severely damaging infrastructure across the country, came after years of “tit-for-tat” incidents between the two sides as part of a carefully calibrated game for which both sides thought they knew the rules.

The name of the unit that attacked an Israeli convoy in the occupied Shebaa Farms Wednesday, killing two and wounding seven others, was the Qunaitra Martyrs – a clear reference to the airstrike last week on a Hezbollah vehicle in Qunaitra, Syria.

That attack killed six party fighters, including the highly symbolic Jihad Mughniyeh – son of assassinated commander Imad – and a senior Iranian military figure. Everyone knew that Hezbollah would have to retaliate.

As a result, most have interpreted the Shebaa Farms incident as part of the contained mini-war between the two sides. But could Hezbollah have been looking for something more following such a bold and humiliating attack on its troops in Syria? Or could their response accidentally have paved the way for something bigger, as it did back in 2006, due to unpredictable internal Israeli factors?

“Never rule out war between these two antagonists,” said Bilal Saab, a senior fellow for Middle East security at the Atlantic Council. “But Hezbollah has already done what it wanted to do: a limited, deadly and precise attack.”

He pointed to the significance of Hezbollah’s decision to respond to the Qunaitra attack from the Shebaa Farms, a heavily disputed territory in the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan Heights that Lebanon claims as its own.

“The very choice of geography shows the organization does not want to escalate,” Saab said. “It’s cautious, the choice of Shebaa, it means we are back to the previous rules of engagement, which were stable until 2006, when everything broke down.”

“It didn’t attack inside Israel, or inside Syria in the Golan Heights. Hezbollah is not after major escalation, if it was, it could have done much, much more, and Israel understands this,” he added. [Continue reading…]

Ron Ben-Yishai writes: Hezbollah’s “achievement” Wednesday was to shed the blood of Israeli soldiers. Even by Lebanese criteria, this is barely a tactical achievement. For Israel it is – and rightly so – hard to come to terms with the death and injury of its soldiers, but grief in itself does not justify a move that would cause tens and hundreds of deaths and injuries on the Israeli side if and when a third Lebanon war breaks out. This is a cold and cruel consideration – but someone has to do it.

Another consideration is the composition of the government and cabinet. After the dismissal of the Yesh Atid and Hatnua ministers, the security cabinet is purely rightwing; it is devoid of legitimacy and a balance that is vital to decisions on war and peace.

The final consideration concerns the upcoming elections. If the present government decides on a harsh response that would trigger a major escalation, it would almost immediately be accused of dragging Israel into a political war designed to serve the ends of Netanyahu, Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett. No rational arguments, strategic justifications and considerations of national pride would help Israel’s current political leadership. They would suffer a defeat at the polls.

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Hezbollah ambush kills at least 2 Israeli soldiers

The Daily Star reports: Hezbollah fighters attacked an Israeli military convoy Wednesday in the occupied Shebaa Farms, in south Lebanon, killing at least two soldiers and wounding seven, in retaliation for Israel’s recent airstrike in the Golan Heights.

A U.N. Spanish peacekeeper was also killed in the heavy exchange of fire that followed the Hezbollah attack, as UNIFIL commander Maj. Gen. Luciano Portolano urged “maximum restraint” from all parties to prevent escalation on the Lebanese-Israeli frontier.

Media reports had earlier said that four Israeli soldiers were killed in the attack.

A security source told The Daily Star that 30 shells were fired from the Israeli side across the Lebanese border following the 11:30 a.m. attack that struck a convoy, destroying at least two vehicles. Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV said the attack destroyed 9 vehicles.

Hezbollah claimed the attack on the Israeli military convoy in a statement.

“At 11:25 [Wednesday morning] the Qunaitra Martyrs unit targeted with appropriate missile weapons an Israeli military convoy comprising several vehicles and [transporting] Zionist officers and soldiers causing the destruction of several vehicles and inflicting many casualties on the enemy,” the brief statement read.

According to Israeli media, a number of Israeli Army troops were being treated with “light-to-moderate wounds” at a hospital in Safed.

About two hours after the initial attack, Israeli warplanes carried out mock air raids over the scene of the attack as their soldiers lobbed shells into Shebaa Farms and the surrounding hills.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened to make Hezbollah “pay” for the attack.

“Those behind the attack today will pay the full price,” Netanyahu said, after cutting a trip to Sderot short to visit the Defense Ministry for “consultations.” [Continue reading…]

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Evidence points to continued existence of Syrian nuclear program

Der Spiegel reports: According to intelligence agency analysis, construction of the facility began back in 2009. The work, their findings suggest, was disguised from the very beginning, with excavated sand being disposed of at various sites, apparently to make it more difficult for observers from above to tell how deeply they were digging. Furthermore, the entrances to the facility were guarded by the military, which turned out to be a necessary precaution. In the spring of 2013, the region around Qusayr saw heavy fighting. But the area surrounding the project in the mines was held, despite heavy losses suffered by elite Hezbollah units stationed there.

The most recent satellite images show six structures: a guard house and five sheds, three of which conceal entrances to the facility below. The site also has special access to the power grid, connected to the nearby city of Blosah. A particularly suspicious detail is the deep well which connects the facility with Zaita Lake, four kilometers away. Such a connection is unnecessary for a conventional weapons cache, but it is essential for a nuclear facility.

But the clearest proof that it is a nuclear facility comes from radio traffic recently intercepted by a network of spies. A voice identified as belonging to a high-ranking Hezbollah functionary can be heard referring to the “atomic factory” and mentions Qusayr. The Hezbollah man is clearly familiar with the site. And he frequently provides telephone updates to a particularly important man: Ibrahim Othman, the head of the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission.

The Hezbollah functionary mostly uses a codename for the facility: “Zamzam,” a word that almost all Muslims know. According to tradition, Zamzam is the well God created in the desert for Abraham’s wife and their son Ishmael. The well can be found in Mecca and is one of the sites visited by pilgrims making the Hajj. Those who don’t revere Zamzam are not considered to be true Muslims.

Work performed at the site by members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard is also mentioned in the intercepted conversations. The Revolutionary Guard is a paramilitary organization under the direct control of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. It controls a large part of the Iranian economy and also plays a significant role in Iran’s own nuclear activities. Not all of its missions abroad are cleared with the government of moderate President Hassan Rohani. The Revolutionary Guard is a state within a state.

Experts are also convinced that North Korea is involved in Zamzam as well. Already during the construction of the Kibar facility, Ibrahim Othman worked closely together with Chou Ji Bu, an engineer who built the nuclear reactor Yongbyon in North Korea.

Chou was long thought to have disappeared. Some thought that he had fallen victim to a purge back home. Now, though, Western intelligence experts believe that he went underground in Damascus. According to the theory, Othman never lost contact with his shady acquaintance. And experts believe that the new nuclear facility could never have been built without North Korean know-how. The workmanship exhibited by the fuel rods likewise hints at North Korean involvement.

What approach will now be taken to Zamzam? How will the West, Assad and Syria’s neighbors react to the revelations?

The discovery of the presumed nuclear facility will not likely be welcomed by any of the political actors. It is an embarrassment for everybody. [Continue reading…]

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Lebanon detains wife of ISIS leader

Reuters reports: The Lebanese army detained a wife and daughter of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as they crossed from Syria nine days ago, security officials said on Tuesday, in a setback to the group as it comes under increased military pressure.

The woman was identified her as Saja al-Dulaimi, an Iraqi, by a senior Lebanese political source and security official.

The Lebanese newspaper As-Safir reported she had been detained in coordination with “foreign intelligence”.

The arrest is a blow to Baghdadi and could be used as a bargaining chip against his group, which has captured many foreign, Iraqi and Syrian prisoners and declared a caliphate across territory it has seized in Syria and Iraq.

A senior Lebanese security official said Baghdadi’s wife had been travelling with one of their daughters, contradicting earlier reports that it was his son. DNA tests were conducted to verify it was Baghdadi’s child, the official said. [Continue reading…]

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Probe into 2005 assassination of Lebanon’s Hariri to focus on Assad

The National reports: Prosecutors at a UN-backed tribunal have started presenting evidence that may point to Syrian complicity in the assassination of Lebanon’s top Sunni statesman.

The trial chamber of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) decided this month to hear the testimony of more than a dozen political witnesses.

They include politicians, journalists and advisers close to Rafik Hariri who will speak about how relations broke down between the former premier and Syrian president Bashar Al Assad in the months before the assassination.

“Let us not be coy about it: the prosecutor now is putting his case on the basis of Syria being behind the assassination of Rafik Hariri,” defence lawyer Iain Edwards told the court before the judges agreed to include the evidence. “Is Bashar Assad going to be formally named as a co-conspirator in the killing of Rafik Hariri? Rustom Ghazaleh? Are they going to be added to the indictment?” he asked, referring to Syria’s intelligence chief in Lebanon at the time of Hariri’s killing. “We are entitled to know.”

The tribunal is trying in absentia five members of Hizbollah accused of complicity in the 2005 bombing that killed Lebanon’s charismatic billionaire former prime minister.

The fresh focus on Syria comes after the investigation has for years stayed away from the involvement of Damascus in the attack that killed Hariri and 21 others. [Continue reading…]

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The collapse of order in the Middle East

freemanIn a speech delivered in Washington DC today, Chas Freeman said: Da`ish [ISIS] and the 15,000 foreign jihadis it has attracted are an existential threat to Arab societies and a potential menace to Muslim societies everywhere. Da`ish poses no comparable threat to the United States. Some Americans argue therefore that Da`ish doesn’t matter. A few suggest that, because tight oil and shale gas production is making North America energy self-sufficient, what happens in the Middle East as a whole should also no longer matter much to Americans. But the Persian Gulf is where international oil prices are set. If you doubt this, ask an American tight oil producer what’s happening in today’s energy markets and why. Without stability in West Asia, the global economy is also unstable.

Da`ish aspires not only to destroy the states of the Mashriq – the Arab East – but to conquer their territories and use their resources to mount attacks on the United States, European countries, Russia, and China. It wants to get its hands on the world’s major energy reserves. Its depredations are a current threat only to stability in West Asia, but its recruitment efforts are as global as its aspirations. Quite aside from the responsibility the United States bears for creating the conditions in which this dangerous cult could be born and flourish, Da`ish threatens American interests abroad today. It promises to threaten American domestic tranquility tomorrow. It sees inflicting harm on the West as a central element of its mission.

For all these reasons, Da`ish cannot be ignored by the United States or other nations outside the Middle East. It requires a response from us. But Da`ish must be actively countered first and foremost by those it targets within the region, not by the United States and its Western allies. This means that our response must be measured, limited, and calculated to avoid relieving regional players of the primary responsibility for protecting themselves from the menace to them that Da`ish represents.

Muslims – whether Shiite or Sunni or Arab, Kurd, Persian, or Turk – now have an expanding piece of Hell in their part of the Earth, a growing foulness near the center of Islam. It is almost certainly a greater threat to all of them than they have ever posed to each other. Da`ish will not be contained and defeated unless the nations and sects on its regional target list – Shiite and Sunni alike – all do their part. We should not delude ourselves. The obstacles to this happening are formidable.

Virtually every group now fighting or being victimized in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon has engaged in or been accused of terrorism by the others. Sectarian violence continues to stoke hatred in the region. The religious animosities between Shi`ites and Sunnis are more intense than ever. The geopolitical rivalry between Iran and the Gulf Arabs remains acute. The political resentments between Turks, Kurds, and Arabs and between Arabs and Persians are entrenched. Each describes the other as part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Unity of command, discipline, and morale are the keys to both military and political success. Da`ish has all three. Its opponents do not. Some are dedicated to the defense of Shiite privilege. Others assign priority to dislodging Shiite or secular authority. Some insist on regime change. Others seek to prevent it. A few support Islamist democratic movements. Others seek to suppress and eradicate them. Some fear terrorism from the victims and enemies of Da`ish more than they fear Da`ish itself. Most treat opposing Da`ish as a secondary strategic objective or a means of enlisting American and other foreign support in the achievement of other priorities, not as their primary aim.

With few exceptions, the states of the region have habitually looked to outside powers for leadership as well as firepower and manpower with which to respond to major security challenges. Despite vast imports of foreign weapons systems, confidence in outside backing has enabled the countries in the region to assume that they could avoid ultimate responsibility for their own defense, relying instead on their ability to summon their American and European security partners in times of crisis. But only a coalition with a strong Muslim identity can hope to contain and shrink Da`ish.

There is no such coalition at present. Every actor in the region has an agenda that is only partially congruent with the Da`ish-related agendas of others. And every actor focuses on the reasons it cannot abide or work with some or all of the others, not on exploring the points it has in common with them. [Continue reading…]

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Lebanon tells Syrian refugees ‘to return’ or go elsewhere

BBC News reports: Lebanon cannot accept any more refugees from war-torn Syria, Information Minister Ramzi Jreij has said.

He also urged existing refugees “to return to their countries, or go to other countries”.

Although he said those in exceptional circumstances could be accepted, the decision could deny refuge to tens of thousands of Syrians.

Lebanon has taken 1.1 million Syrians despite having a total population of just over four million.

A spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) told the BBC that Lebanon’s decision “is not a surprise”.

“We can understand, we sit here responding to this enormous weight of refugees that is draining this community like nothing we have ever seen before,” she added. [Continue reading…]

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Iran vows to aid Lebanese military

The Associated Press reports: Iran said Sunday it is ready to provide aid to the Lebanese army as well as the Shiite Hezbollah group to help combat “terrorists.”

The promise of aid comes after Iran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia pledged billions of dollars to Lebanon’s armed forces, and will be seen by many Lebanese as part of a competition for influence over the tiny country, which is gripped by sectarian tensions and bitterly divided over the Syrian civil war.

Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, was quoted by state TV as saying that “supporting the Lebanese nation, army and resistance will still remain on Iran’s agenda.” Hezbollah’s allies refer to it as the “resistance” because of its stated mission of driving Israel out of occupied territory.

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Lebanon pulled into war with ISIS

The Associated Press reports: With all eyes on the Islamic State group’s onslaught in Iraq and Syria, a less conspicuous but potentially just as explosive front line with the extremists is emerging in Lebanon, where Lebanese soldiers and Shiite Hezbollah guerrillas are increasingly pulled into deadly fighting with the Sunni militants along the country’s border with Syria.

The U.S. has been speeding up delivery of small ammunition to shore up Lebanon’s army, but recent cross-border attacks and beheading of Lebanese soldiers by Islamic State fighters — and the defection of four others to the extremists — has sent shockwaves across this Mediterranean country, eliciting fear of a potential slide into the kind of militant, sectarian violence afflicting both Syria and Iraq, and increasingly prompting minorities to take up arms.

The crisis was slow in coming.

For long, Lebanon managed to miraculously avoid the all-out chaos gripping neighboring countries — despite sporadic street clashes and car bombings, and despite being awash with weapons and taking in an endless stream of refugees from Syria who now constitute a staggering one third of its population of 4.5 million people.

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Let them eat bombs: The cost of ignoring Syria’s humanitarian crisis

Aron Lund writes: Winter is coming, and the humanitarian situation in Syria has never been so dire, with more than 3 million refugees abroad and some 6.5 million internally displaced — nearly half of the country’s population.

According to UN figures, more than 10 million Syrians now need outside aid to survive, nearly half of them stuck in areas under siege or otherwise hard to access. The power infrastructure and agricultural sector are breaking down due to the strains of war and a lack of upkeep. Across Syria, the prices of fuel, food, and everyday goods are skyrocketing due to systemic failures in the power supply structure, war, and bombings. Millions of Syrians are left to face the winter cold in appalling conditions, at a time when wealthy Western and Arab nations spend billions on counterterrorism and renewed rebel training missions.

This is not simply callous neglect. Even if the Syrian conflict were to be viewed solely through a security prism, the international community’s tepid response to this humanitarian crisis is clearly counterproductive. The spiralling poverty, social breakdown, and despair is precisely what has paved the way for extremist sectarian militias, not only inside Syria but also among refugees scattered in countries like Lebanon and Jordan, and there is little hope for a solution for as long as the humanitarian crisis persists.

Yet while funds are readily available for military interventions of last resort — such as “Operation Inherent Resolve,” the U.S.-led coalition striking jihadi targets in Syria and Iraq—the international community remains unwilling to summon up a humanitarian coalition to get Syrians through the winter. [Continue reading…]

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Has the ISIS crisis pushed the CIA into bed with Hezbollah?

Jeff Stein reports: A few months ago, a former top CIA operative applied for a Lebanese visa to do some work in Beirut for an oil company. While he was waiting for approval, a package arrived at his client’s office. Inside was a full dossier on his CIA career. “It included things on where I had served, well back into 1990s,” said Charles Faddis, who ran the CIA’s covert action program in Kurdistan during the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, among other top assignments. “It had details on my travels to Israel and Lebanon—years ago.”

Faddis took it as a blunt message from Hezbollah, the Iran-backed partner in Lebanon’s coalition government that is equal parts political party, social service agency, occupying army and terrorist group. “It was their way of saying, ‘We don’t want this guy here, but we want business with you to go forward,’” Faddis told Newsweek. It also was a way of underscoring—as if any emphasis was needed—that to do business in Lebanon, you have to go through the “Party of God.” And today that business includes the U.S. drive to recruit regional partners to wage war on the Islamic State, the group more commonly known as ISIS.

Washington wants Lebanon to stop ISIS at its borders. So does Hezbollah, whose entry into the Lebanese government last February did not get it removed from the State Department’s list of terrorist groups. [Continue reading…]

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Anti-Syrian sentiment in Lebanon

Mahmoud Mroueh writes: According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as of September 11, 2014 close to 9.5 million Syrians have been forced to leave their homes since the uprising began in March of 2011. Of those who were forced to move, 6.5 million are internally displaced; the remaining three million left the country as refugees.

Forty percent of those who left Syria (1.2 million people) headed into neighbouring Lebanon. In Lebanon they were met with endemic racism manifesting itself through chauvinistic rhetoric, discrimination, curfews, evacuation notices, and increasingly frequent racial attacks against their person and their livelihood. The Lebanese laud themselves for their sense of hospitality and exceptional generosity, but these claims are now being tested by what has been described as the ‘worst refugee crisis in recent history’, and Lebanon has been failing miserably.

Violence against refugees has been steadily becoming more common and more gruesome, most notably after the conflagration in Arsal. ‘Revenge’ attacks for the actions of groups like the Islamic State or Jabhat al-Nusra, or for isolated crimes by Syrian individuals, that target refugees, their homes, and their property are becoming increasingly frequent. It is worth noting that the Islamic State militant responsible for the beheadings of two Lebanese Armed Forces soldiers, an act that spurred a large part of these ‘revenge attacks’ was Lebanese, not Syrian. Reports of refugee camps being set alight, drive-by shootings, and attacks against refugees by racist mobs are now a daily feature of Lebanese news broadcasts, and some have begun to (accurately) describe these events as ‘pogroms’. [Continue reading…]

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Israel wary of Islamist militants on its borders

Reuters reports: Israel’s frontier with Syria, where militants have kidnapped 45 U.N. peacekeepers, has become a magnet for Islamist activity and Israel itself is now a target, the defense minister and security analysts said on Tuesday.

The Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda-linked group fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has established a major presence in the region, analysts said, and is poised to carry out attacks across the barren borderlands where Syria, Israel and Jordan converge.

Iran meanwhile is seeking to expand its influence in the region via its support for Assad and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, all of which are allied against the Sunni insurgency confronting Assad, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said.

“Iran’s fingerprints can be seen in Syria, including in the Golan Heights, in attempts to use terror squads against us,” Yaalon told an economic conference as he set out the combined threat from Islamist groups in Syria.

In their latest assault, Nusra Front fighters seized 45 Fijians serving as U.N. monitors in the demilitarized zone on the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria. It is demanding to be removed from global terrorism lists in exchange for their release.

“We now have Jabhat al-Nusra, which is basically al Qaeda, on the border with Israel, and Israel is a legitimate target for Muslim militants all over,” said Aviv Oreg, a retired Israeli intelligence officer and a specialist on al Qaeda.

Oreg said it was only “a matter of time” before the Islamist groups now engaged in fighting in Syria turn more of their attention towards Israel.

“I cannot tell you exactly when, but it’s very risky. It only needs one suicide bomber to cross the fence and attack an Israeli military patrol or a tractor full of farmers going to work in the fields…”

But while Israel may be growing alarmed, it is not clear that the Jewish state is a strategic priority for Nusra or other radical Sunni Muslim groups.

Their focus since 2011 has been the overthrow of Assad, a campaign that has bogged down from infighting in their ranks and Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah’s intervention on the side of Assad.

If Israel is attacked in any serious way, the retaliation would likely be intense, setting back the insurgency and opening the way for Assad’s forces to further reclaim the initiative. [Continue reading…]

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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.

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