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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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...]

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Lebanon’s closed doors for Palestinian refugees

IPS reports: Tens of thousands of Palestinians living in Syria have been uprooted since the violent government crackdown on the uprising and the ensuing battles that ensnared their communities. For around 50,000 of them, Lebanon was their only safe route out but now it seems this door is being closed on them.

The family of 19-year-old Iyad was exiled from Palestine in 1948 upon creation of the state of Israel and fled to Yarmouk camp in Damascus, Syria, where they settled but violence and war have once again uprooted their community. Iyad now finds himself on the run from Syria, but his security in Lebanon is far from assured.

Having fled to Lebanon in December last year, Iyad was intent on traveling onto Libya and from there to make the perilous journey to the now renowned Italian island of Lampedusa. However, last month his plans were thwarted when the Lebanese security services detained him, along with 48 other young Palestinian men, as they tried to leave Lebanon through Rafiq Hariri airport in Beirut. [Continue reading...]

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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...]

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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.

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Assad and Hezbollah’s land bridge from Iran has been severed by ISIS

Juan Cole writes: With the alleged fall to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria of Qa’im on Saturday, and of Talafar a few days ago, the border between Iraq and Syria has now been effectively erased. A new country exists, stretching from the outskirts of Baghdad all the way to Aleppo. In history, it uncannily resembles the state ruled by Imad ad-Din Zangi (AD 1085 – 1146), a Turkish notable who came to power in 1128 after a Shiite Assassin killed his father. His realms lay between the Abbasid Caliphate on the one hand and the Atabegs of Damascus on the other. Like ISIS, he was not able to take and keep Homs. He also was not able to take Palestine away from the Crusaders, despite a brief alliance for that purpose with Buri of Damascus. ISIS also so far lacks Baghdad or Damascus but like Zangi does have much in between.

The first thing that occurred to me on the fall of Qa’im is that Iran no longer has its land bridge to Lebanon. I suppose it could get much of the way there through Kurdish territory, but ISIS could ambush the convoys when they came into Arab Syria. Since Iran has expended a good deal of treasure and blood to keep Bashar al-Assad in power so as to maintain that land bridge, it surely will not easily accept being blocked by ISIS. Without Iranian shipments of rockets and other munitions, Lebanon’s Hizbullah would rapidly decline in importance, and south Lebanon would be open again to potential Israeli occupation. I’d say, we can expect a Shiite counter-strike to maintain the truck routes to Damascus. [Continue reading...]

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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.

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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...]

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Will the gas fields of the Levant Basin become Israel’s next warzone?

a13-iconChristopher Dickey reports: When Israel looks at the greatest threat to its long-term hopes for the future, these days it’s looking out to sea. The old issues are on the table, of course: Iran’s nukes, the Palestinians, the Syrian slaughterhouse next door and growing regional instability. But if there’s a place where a sudden, out-of-control war is likely to erupt, it’s probably not going to be called the Sinai, the Golan, the West Bank (or Judea and Samaria). It’s going to be called Leviathan, Dalit or Karish — the vast fields of natural gas and oil discovered in the deep waters between Israel and Cyprus over the last five years.

Who controls that wealth is likely to dominate the economic future of the region for generations to come. The Israelis know it. So do their allies, their rivals and their enemies. And tensions are mounting by the day.

“All the elements of danger are there,” says Pierre Terzian, editor of the oil industry weekly Petrostrategies: there is competition for huge resources, there are disputed borders, and, not to put too fine a point on it, “this is a region where resorting to violent action is not something unusual.”

The United States government is watching warily, trying to broker diplomatic settlements and, so far, failing. No longer inclined to be the region’s policeman on land or in the air, much less at sea, Washington is scaling back its presence in the Middle East while just about everyone else is increasing theirs.

Israel is rushing to create “the most technologically advanced fleet in the Eastern Mediterranean,” according to a report in Tablet Magazine. Turkey is flexing its maritime muscles with plans to spend as much as a billion dollars on a multi-purpose amphibious assault ship that will give its fleet blue water capabilities like never before. The Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, meanwhile, is known to have naval missiles, and has used them in the past, sinking a cargo vessel and holing an Israeli warship during the Lebanon war of 2006. Russia is expanding both its naval and commercial presence in Syrian waters, despite the Syrian civil war. It inked a $90 million, 25-year exploration deal with Damascus last Christmas Day. [Continue reading...]

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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...]

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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...]

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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...]

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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.

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Hezbollah accuses Israel of assassinating senior commander in Beirut

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...]

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Video: Max Blumenthal on the war in Syria and the complicity of the antiwar movement

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Syrian government offensive pushes 20,000 Syrians into Lebanon

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...]

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Western intelligence agency tipped Lebanon to likely attack

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.”

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