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...]
The Washington Post reports: Its dusty streets lined with cars bearing Syrian license plates, this Lebanese mountain town has long felt as much Syrian as Lebanese. But as Bashar al-Assad’s army squeezes rebel-held towns just across the border, 20,000 new arrivals have left locals significantly outnumbered and forced Lebanon to open its first official transit camp for Syrian refugees.
Many arrive in the border town with little more than the clothes on their backs, packing into wedding halls and mosques or sleeping in cars while awaiting tents in the newly organized camp.
The influx comes as the Syrian army, backed by forces from the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, moves to secure towns in the Qalamoun region across the border. It started as government forces took Qara, a highway town dotted with car mechanic shops on the road from Homs to the capital, Damascus, a fortnight ago. The town emptied, and a convoy of thousands left for Lebanon, the winding dirt road across the mountains backed up with cars and trucks. On Thursday, Deir Attiyeh, a few miles farther south on the highway, was retaken by government forces after being seized by rebels days earlier, while nearby Nabk remained surrounded. [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.”
Reuters reports: Two explosions, at least one caused by a suicide bomber, rocked Iran’s embassy in Lebanon on Tuesday, killing at least 23 people, including an Iranian cultural attaché, and hurling bodies, cars and debris across the street.
A Lebanese-based al Qaeda-linked group known as the Abdullah Azzam Brigades claimed responsibility for what it described as a double suicide attack on the Iranian mission in southern Beirut.
Lebanon has suffered a series of bomb attacks and clashes linked to the 2-1/2-year-old conflict in neighboring Syria.
Security camera footage showed a man in an explosives belt rushing towards the outer wall of the embassy before blowing himself up, Lebanese officials said. They said the second explosion was caused by a car bomb parked two buildings away from the compound.
In a Twitter post, Sheikh Sirajeddine Zuraiqat, the religious guide of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, said the group had carried out the attack. “It was a double martyrdom operation by two of the Sunni heroes of Lebanon,” he wrote. [Continue reading...]
Der Spiegel reports: In the shadow of the Syrian civil war, a growing number of refugees are surviving in Lebanon by illegally selling their own organs. But the exchange comes at a huge cost.
The young man, who called himself Raïd, wasn’t doing well. He climbed into the backseat of the car, in pain, careful not to touch any corners. He was exhausted and dizzy. A large bandage looped around his stomach, caked with blood. Despite that, the 19-year-old Syrian wanted to tell his story.
Seven months ago, he fled the embattled city of Aleppo, in Syria, to Lebanon with his parents and six siblings. The family quickly ran out of money in the capital, Beirut. Raïd heard from a relative that the solution could be to sell one of his kidneys, and then he spoke to a bull-necked man, now sitting in the passenger seat, smoking and drinking a beer.
His acquaintances call the man Abu Hussein. He said he’s employed by a gang that works in the human organ trade – specializing in kidneys. The group’s business is booming. About one million Syrians have fled into Lebanon because of the civil war in their home country and now many don’t know how they can make a living. In their distress, they sell their organs. It’s a dangerous and, of course, illegal business. That’s why the gang has its operations performed in shady underground clinics.
Abu Hussein’s boss is known in the poor areas of Beirut as “Big Man.” Fifteen months ago, Big Man gave the 26-year-old a new assignment: find organ donors. The influx of Syrian refugees from the war, Abu Hussein’s boss argued, made it more likely people would be willing to sell organs.
Lebanon has a tradition of illegal organ trading. The country has immensely rich people and a huge number of people living in poverty. And organ traffickers don’t need to worry about government controls. Those are exactly the ideal conditions for organ trafficking, said Luc Noel, transplant expert at the World Health Organization in Geneva.
Every year, tens of thousands of rich Arabs from around the region come to Beirut for treatment in the country’s excellent hospitals. The authorities don’t pay attention whether a patient flies home with a new nose — or with a new kidney.
Previously, it was mostly destitute Palestinians who sold their organs. Then came the war in Syria, and then the refugees. Now the groups are in competition and the prices are falling. [Continue reading...]
The Observer reports: As you come through the military checkpoints on the way into Wadi Khaled, local mobile phones bleep with an unsolicited text: “The Ministry of Tourism welcomes you to Syria.”
This part of northern Lebanon, which juts like a knucklebone into Syria, is so close to the war that the villagers can watch the rockets land and palls of smoke rising across the hillsides. Children have swarmed up on to the first floor of the shell of a half-built house and are pointing excitedly to where the outlying villages of Homs begin. “I can see our house,” shouts Satash, six.
His mother, Maro, 28, stands back with her eyes cast down. “The older girls come up here and spend hours and hours sitting and looking out at Syria. I cannot even look.”
Satash’s home is, in reality, long gone. He now lives in Lebanon, in what used to be a shed for slaughtering chickens, with his parents and grandparents, his three-year-old sister and six orphaned cousins. The cousins’ mother was killed by shelling that stopped the delivery of medicines to treat her sickness; their father died from shrapnel wounds.
After fleeing in the middle of the night when a shell landed in their yard, taking only the clothes they stood up in, the family walked south for seven hours before crossing into Lebanon. They wandered for several months looking for help and accommodation, and ended up in the village of Knaisse in Wadi Khaled, only three miles from their Syrian home.
The family live in a shed, the rent waived by a kindly Lebanese. They have one blanket between five people, and plastic bags stuffed along the flimsy roof to stop the rain coming in. The grandmother lies on a scrap of matting, suffering from afflictions for which there is no money to buy treatment.
Maro and family live on a small monthly cash handout from a UN agency. Like most of the 1.3 million Syrian refugees now in Lebanon, a country of just 4.2 million people, they are worried about the snow that will start falling on the hills of Wadi Khaled within weeks. This will be their second winter here. “The room becomes like a refrigerator in the winter, the water floods like a lake all around and the wind is so cold,” said Maro’s husband, Ahmad, who is clearly under strain. He shouts again and again: “The people who stayed are dead under the rubble!” [Continue reading...]
Der Spiegel reports: The war in Syria and its wave of refugees is destabilizing and overwhelming Lebanon. Now there are fears the hundreds of thousands of newcomers will never want to leave, and the sectarian conflict will worsen.
General Ibrahim Bachir saw it coming. He has been warning the government for over two years now: Stop wasting time and start building refugee camps to deal with the influx of Syrian refugees, he told them.
But the deeply divided and ineffective government authorities in Lebanon did nothing, he says — and now it’s too late: “We have all these problems,” the general says, “criminals, prostitutes and beggars everywhere — across the entire country!”
Bachir, 60, heads the High Relief Commission, the state agency charged with helping the masses of refugees fleeing the conflict in neighboring Syria. “But how is such a small country supposed to accommodate so many refugees?” he asks. “One in four people here is now a Syrian refugee.” [Continue reading...]
Rami G Khouri writes: Following events in Lebanon from the United States, as I have done during the past week, leaves one with the impression that most media in the U.S. are eager to see a resumption of the devastating and wasteful civil war that ravaged Lebanon for 15 years until 1990. Virtually every story on Lebanon is framed in the lens of the possible return to sectarian civil strife as a result of the spillover of the Syrian conflict.
The reality seems rather different to me, despite the many weaknesses and dysfunctional aspects of Lebanese governance. The international press corps and many in the political classes should wise up and see the country as something more than a bomb waiting to explode repeatedly.
The political tensions and a handful of local clashes following the assassination last Friday of Internal Security Forces Intelligence Bureau head Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hasan reflected a tragic but rather routine sequence of sentiments and events, in this country where political assassinations have occurred regularly for half a century.
Millions of Lebanese instantly feared a recurrence of the serial political killings that followed the assassination of the late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in early 2005. Some took to the streets to express themselves in the time-tested manner of burning tires and blocking a few streets.
At the Hasan funeral Sunday, the weaknesses and amateurism of some Lebanese politicians surfaced. Understandably angry members of the March 14 coalition in opposition fired up the crowd by demanding the resignation of the government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati.
Former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, normally a rational man who shouldered the responsibility of power with great dignity and resolve in the difficult years following the Hariri assassination, succumbed to a moment of reckless silliness when he said Sunday that Mikati’s Cabinet was a “government of assassination,” given the numerous assassinations that occurred during the years when March 14 and Siniora ran the government.
His and other fiery statements prompted a small crowd of excited youth to try and storm the government headquarters in central Beirut, and they were quickly dispersed by some forceful work by the internal security forces.
After this incident, senior March 14 leaders, including former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, called for calm, insisting that their desire to topple the government should be achieved through peaceful and democratic means. So they are now boycotting all contacts with the government, which is most unimpressive.
While most media coverage of Lebanon that I have seen in the U.S. tends to fall into narrative and hysterical categories that describe clashes and see them in the context of possibly returning to civil war, my sense is that the historian’s perspective of identifying new trends and political factors is much more useful today to grasp what is going on in Lebanon. [Continue reading...]
Robert Fisk writes: There was gunfire at Sheikh Ahmed Abdul-Wahid’s funeral in northern Lebanon yesterday, a promise from the Lebanese army that they will investigate his killing – by a soldier – on Sunday, and a heap of appeals for calm from both the military and the government.
But, and here’s the worrying factor, not a single Lebanese flag was held aloft at the Sunni Muslim Sheikh’s graveside. Banners of the largely Sunni March 14th movement that opposes Syria, there were aplenty. And many flags of the old Syrian nation – green-white-and-black – the symbol that now identifies all opposition to President Bashar al-Assad. But Lebanon had somehow got lost.
Only hours after gun battles in Beirut – between Sunni Muslims who support Bashar and those who would like to see him dead – the angry, rifle-shooting cortege followed Abdul-Wahid’s coffin, his sheikh’s red and black turban attached to the lid upon a green and gold cloth, to the cemetery in his little village of Bireh. No one – not even the Lebanese army, which was hitherto the one reliable, non-sectarian institution in the state – can explain why a soldier would want to shoot the sheikh as he travelled with his bodyguard on the road to Halba in the far north of Lebanon. Military sources said that a soldier had also been wounded in the shooting. So did the sheikh’s bodyguard fire first?
And what – an awful question, but one which was obviously being asked in Beirut yesterday – was the religious affiliation of the soldiers who apparently stopped, or tried to stop, the sheikh’s car at a roadblock north of Tripoli? Yes, a committee would be set up to investigate. And yes, there would be a police inquiry. And a military inquiry, to boot. [Continue reading...]
The Daily Star reports: Fears grew over the stability of north Lebanon Sunday after soldiers shot dead a prominent anti-Assad Muslim preacher and a companion at a Lebanese Army checkpoint in Akkar, triggering a wave of anger in several parts of the country.
The gravity of the incident, which quickly led to the Army withdrawing from the Akkar region and opening an investigation, prompted leaders on both sides of the political divide to call for calm and restraint to prevent the country from sliding into sectarian strife as a result of a spillover of the 15-month-old uprising in neighboring Syria.
Sheikh Ahmad Abdul-Wahed and his companion, Sheikh Mohammad Hussein al-Mereb, were killed at an Army checkpoint in Kwaikhat while on their way to attend a rally organized by Future MP Khaled Daher in the village of Halba to commemorate the movement’s victims during the 2008 clashes between pro- and anti-government supporters.
The Lebanese Army took responsibility for the incident, saying it had immediately formed a committee to investigate the deaths. The Army said in a statement that Abdul-Wahed and Mereb died of “fatal gunshot wounds in a regrettable incident near an Army checkpoint in the village of Kwaikhat.”
Elias Muhanna writes: Lebanon’s peculiar brand of democracy, dysfunctional and widely unpopular, is a perennial source of national vexation, debated over Sunday lunches and in the press.
Since the Taif agreement of 1989, which helped end the civil war, half of Parliament has been reserved for Christians, the other half for Muslims, with each half distributed among 11 of Lebanon’s 18 officially recognized sects (Maronite, Greek Orthodox, Protestant, Sunni, Shiite, Druze, Alawite, etc). Each of Parliament’s (pdf) 128 seats is sect-specific: only members of that sect can run for it. (Voters, however, can cast their ballot for every seat in their district regardless of their own religious affiliation.) The president must be a Maronite, the prime minister a Sunni and the speaker of Parliament a Shiite. Hundreds of bureaucratic appointments are also subject to sectarian apportionment under the Constitution.
The imposition of religious representativeness in politics is a scourge. In the best of circumstances, it is vulnerable to the demagoguery of religious leaders; in the worst, it breeds civil violence and paralyzes the government. But others fear that a more open system would not provide the guarantees of power-sharing among religious minorities that the current model entails.
In recent months, the focus of these long-standing divergences has centered on the intricacies of Lebanon’s electoral law. The next parliamentary elections are less than a year and a half away, and a loose coalition of civil society groups, independent politicians and Lebanon’s president – the former army general Michel Suleiman — has recently proposed implementing a system of proportional representation to replace the current majoritarian, or “winner-take-all,” model.
Mitchell Prothero writes: The blacked-out sport utility vehicles entered the small mountain village of Arsal, in the furthest reaches of Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, at midnight on a cold night late last month. The mostly Sunni residents of the town immediately knew what was happening: Hezbollah had come to grab someone from his bed.
The target appears to have been a Syrian relative of the dominant local tribe, the Qarqouz, who had taken refuge in the village, which lies just a few miles from the Syrian border. With close families ties on both sides of the line, as well as a central government presence that doesn’t even live up to the designation of “weak,” the tribes make little distinction between Syria and Lebanon, and many make their livings plying that most cliché of all Beqaa trades: cross-border smuggling.
Whether the wanted man is a dissident Syrian remains unclear — the family certainly denies any such thing. Nevertheless, the raid by Hezbollah’s internal security apparatus follows a pattern of harassment, kidnapping, and cross-border rendition of Syrian anti-regime activists by Syria’s many loyalists in Lebanon, which also include rogue police units, pro-Syria political movements, and even Kurdish separatists. As President Bashar al-Assad looks to squelch an astonishingly persistent nine-month revolt, Lebanon is fast becoming another battleground between supporters and opponents of his rule.
The Arsal incursion, however, did not go how Hezbollah planned. The men in black trucks didn’t impress the residents of Arsal: True to their reputation as a flinty bunch, the tribes immediately sent out men bedecked with the ubiquitous accessories of any respectable Beqaa smuggler — the AK-47 and rocket propelled grenade launcher — and ambushed the convoy before it could lay hands on the purported Syrian fugitive.
Local officials released a statement shortly afterwards, warning Hezbollah against any attempt to repeat its adventure. “Let everyone know that Arsal is not orphaned,” it read. “[A]nyone attacking Arsal or any other Lebanese town would be definitely serving the Zionist enemy and Assad’s brigades.”
Hezbollah, which tepidly denied the incident, hasn’t released any casualty figures, but the ensuing firefight was nasty enough that the Lebanese Army dispatched a team to extract the Hezbollah men from the ambush — and itself came under fire from Sunni mountainfolk with little use for either Shiite militant supporters of the Assad regime, or law enforcement of any sort.
The Lebanese army claimed in a convoluted statement the next day that an intelligence unit was in hot pursuit of a known criminal when it unexpectedly came under attack. However, that narrative unraveled over the next few days, when a collection of local officials and anti-Syrian Sunni politicians accused Hezbollah of instigating the attack — a claim confirmed to FP by multiple intelligence and law enforcement officials, as well as one prominent human rights activist.