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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Video: From my point of view — independent investigation

Find out more at Exploring the Invisible.

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Blasts target Iranian embassy in Beirut

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...]

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Syrian refugees compete with destitute Palestinians in Lebanon’s growing organ trade market

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...]

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Lebanon suffers under the strain of a refugee crisis now out of control

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...]

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Syrian refugees destabilizing Lebanon

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...]

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Lebanon’s troubles don’t include civil war

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...]

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Video: Is Syria’s conflict being fought in Lebanon?

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