Amid Syrian chaos, Iran’s game plan emerges: A path to the Mediterranean

Martin Chulov reports: Not far from Mosul, a large military force is finalising plans for an advance that has been more than three decades in the making. The troops are Shia militiamen who have fought against the Islamic State, but they have not been given a direct role in the coming attack to free Iraq’s second city from its clutches.

Instead, while the Iraqi army attacks Mosul from the south, the militias will take up a blocking position to the west, stopping Isis forces from fleeing towards their last redoubt of Raqqa in Syria. Their absence is aimed at reassuring the Sunni Muslims of Mosul that the imminent recapture of the city is not a sectarian push against them. However, among Iraq’s Shia-dominated army the militia’s decision to remain aloof from the battle of Mosul is being seen as a rebuff.

Yet among the militias’ backers in Iran there is little concern. Since their inception, the Shia irregulars have made their name on the battlefields of Iraq, but they have always been central to Tehran’s ambitions elsewhere. By not helping to retake Mosul, the militias are free to drive one of its most coveted projects – securing an arc of influence across Iraq and Syria that would end at the Mediterranean Sea.

The strip of land to the west of Mosul in which the militias will operate is essential to that goal. After 12 years of conflict in Iraq and an even more savage conflict in Syria, Iran is now closer than ever to securing a land corridor that will anchor it in the region – and potentially transform the Islamic Republic’s presence on Arab lands. “They have been working extremely hard on this,” said a European official who has monitored Iran’s role in both wars for the past five years. “This is a matter of pride for them on one hand and pragmatism on the other. They will be able to move people and supplies between the Mediterranean and Tehran whenever they want, and they will do so along safe routes that are secured by their people, or their proxies.”

Interviews during the past four months with regional officials, influential Iraqis and residents of northern Syria have established that the land corridor has slowly taken shape since 2014. It is a complex route that weaves across Arab Iraq, through the Kurdish north, into Kurdish north-eastern Syria and through the battlefields north of Aleppo, where Iran and its allies are prevailing on the ground. It has been assembled under the noses of friend and foe, the latter of which has begun to sound the alarm in recent weeks. Turkey has been especially opposed, fearful of what such a development means for Iran’s relationship with the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ party), the restive Kurds in its midst, on whom much of the plan hinges. [Continue reading…]


Sectarian fighters mass for battle to capture east Aleppo

The Guardian reports: As the most intensive air bombardment of the war has rained down on opposition-held east Aleppo this week, an army of some 6,000 pro-government fighters has gathered on its outskirts for what they plan will be an imminent, decisive advance.

Among those poised to attack are hundreds of Syrian troops who have eyed the city from distant fixed positions since it was seized by Syrian rebels in mid-2012.

But in far greater numbers are an estimated 5,000 foreign fighters who will play a defining role in the battle – and take a lead stake in what emerges from the ruins.

The coming showdown for Aleppo is a culmination of plans made far from the warrooms of Damascus. Shia Islamic fighters have converged on the area from Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and Afghanistan to prepare for a clash that they see as a pre-ordained holy war that will determine the future of the region. [Continue reading…]


Lebanon indicts Syrian officers for twin 2013 mosque bombings

Reuters reports: Lebanon indicted two Syrian intelligence officers on Friday in connection with twin bombings at mosques in Tripoli in 2013, state media said, the deadliest attack in the city since the end of Lebanon’s civil war in 1990.

The two blasts, at the Sunni Muslim Taqwa and al-Salam mosques in the northern Lebanese city, happened within minutes of each other in August 2013 and killed more than 40 people and injured hundreds.

A Lebanese military court accused Syrian intelligence officers Muhammad Ali Ali, of the “Palestine Branch”, and Nasser Jubaan, of the “Political Security Directorate,” of planning and overseeing the attacks, Lebanon’s National News Agency said.

The court ruling announcing the indictment said investigators were still trying to uncover the names of the officials responsible for giving the two officers their orders.

According to NNA, the ruling said “the order was issued from a high-level security body within the Syrian intelligence service”. [Continue reading…]


An aristocrat’s view of Beirut

Michael Specter writes: The Sursocks are among the oldest and richest of the Christian families in Lebanon. And at the age of 94, Lady Cochrane, a Sursock by birth, may be the last great dame of the Levant. Lucid and acerbic, she seems like a cross between the Dowager Countess of Grantham and one of the less savory Mitford sisters. We had tea late one afternoon in her library, which, because it is the “coziest” place in the house, also serves as her sitting room. (This particular cozy room has 33-foot ceilings and mahogany walls and enormous 17th-century paintings. A collection of Flemish tapestries lines the entrance vestibule and dining room.)

Lady Cochrane, dressed crisply in a brown blouse, silk salmon foulard and houndstooth skirt, met me in the middle of the great hall, which features a double flight of marble stairs at its center. I asked the most obvious question first: Were you here during the civil war?

“Always,” she replied, as if my question was slightly insulting. “It’s where I live.”

Even today it is hard to walk three blocks in Beirut without seeing a building pockmarked with machine gun fire or mortar rounds, and yet the Sursock Palace was pristine. I wondered how that was possible.

“ I believe we were somehow respected,” she said matter-of-factly. “Because one day I was in the middle of the hall where you came in.” A crowd of what she referred to as “young ruffians” walked into the house. “I knew that these people would go from house to house, burgle and ruin them,” she said. (I wondered whether the words “ruffian,” and “burgle” had ever before been used to describe the vengeful packs of murderers that held sway in Beirut during the war.)

“I was alone,” she said, “and I thought, this is terrible. There must have been 50 of them. With big guns. I thought, they are just going to murder me. They saw me at a distance, and then they all went upstairs,” she said. “I tried to stay calm as best I could. After a time, they came down and I thought they must have just destroyed everything or stolen things.” She said this all with a kind of effortless serenity.

“But they did not pinch one single thing,” she continued, shaking her head in amazement 30 years later. “Except for an old poniard that had been hanging on the wall. There were two of them with exquisite Chinese handles. Very rare. They stole one and left the other where it was. I have always felt quite certain they didn’t care about the handle. Probably threw it away. They only wanted the dagger itself.”

Lady Cochrane explained that her staff had buried most of the valuables at the start of the hostilities. And there were a lot of them to bury. (“After it was over my own butler had trouble finding everything,” she said. “He hid it all so well.”)

She is horrified by the city she now inhabits. “When I was a child, Beirut was the most beautiful city. Full of gardens. Then bad government got a hold of the place. Now, after years of war and neglect it is nothing but a generalized slum.”

It was perhaps not the most nuanced analysis, but I had to ask one more question: What had happened?

“Democracy, young man,” she said. “Democracy. We never had a proper leader, and eventually the place began to fall apart.” [Continue reading…]


Don’t blame Sykes-Picot for the Middle East’s mess


Steven A. Cook and Amr T. Leheta write: Sometime in the 100 years since the Sykes-Picot agreement was signed, invoking its “end” became a thing among commentators, journalists, and analysts of the Middle East. Responsibility for the cliché might belong to the Independent’s Patrick Cockburn, who in June 2013 wrote an essay in the London Review of Books arguing that the agreement, which was one of the first attempts to reorder the Middle East after the Ottoman Empire’s demise, was itself in the process of dying. Since then, the meme has spread far and wide: A quick Google search reveals more than 8,600 mentions of the phrase “the end of Sykes-Picot” over the last three years.

The failure of the Sykes-Picot agreement is now part of the received wisdom about the contemporary Middle East. And it is not hard to understand why. Four states in the Middle East are failing — Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya. If there is a historic shift in the region, the logic goes, then clearly the diplomatic settlements that produced the boundaries of the Levant must be crumbling. History seems to have taken its revenge on Mark Sykes and his French counterpart, François Georges-Picot, who hammered out the agreement that bears their name.

The “end of Sykes-Picot” argument is almost always followed with an exposition of the artificial nature of the countries in the region. Their borders do not make sense, according to this argument, because there are people of different religions, sects, and ethnicities within them. The current fragmentation of the Middle East is thus the result of hatreds and conflicts — struggles that “date back millennia,” as U.S. President Barack Obama said — that Sykes and Picot unwittingly released by creating these unnatural states. The answer is new borders, which will resolve all the unnecessary damage the two diplomats wrought over the previous century.

Yet this focus on Sykes-Picot is a combination of bad history and shoddy social science. And it is setting up the United States, once again, for failure in the Middle East.

For starters, it is not possible to pronounce that the maelstrom of the present Middle East killed the Sykes-Picot agreement, because the deal itself was stillborn. Sykes and Picot never negotiated state borders per se, but rather zones of influence. And while the idea of these zones lived on in the postwar agreements, the framework the two diplomats hammered out never came into existence.

Unlike the French, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s government actively began to undermine the accord as soon as Sykes signed it — in pencil. The details are complicated, but as Margaret Macmillan makes clear in her illuminating book Paris 1919, the alliance between Britain and France in the fight against the Central Powers did little to temper their colonial competition. Once the Russians dropped out of the war after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the British prime minister came to believe that the French zone that Sykes and Picot had outlined — comprising southeastern Turkey, the western part of Syria, Lebanon, and Mosul — was no longer a necessary bulwark between British positions in the region and the Russians.

Nor are the Middle East’s modern borders completely without precedent. Yes, they are the work of European diplomats and colonial officers — but these boundaries were not whimsical lines drawn on a blank map. They were based, for the most part, on pre-existing political, social, and economic realities of the region, including Ottoman administrative divisions and practices. The actual source of the boundaries of the present Middle East can be traced to the San Remo conference, which produced the Treaty of Sèvres in August 1920. Although Turkish nationalists defeated this agreement, the conference set in motion a process in which the League of Nations established British mandates over Palestine and Iraq, in 1920, and a French mandate for Syria, in 1923. The borders of the region were finalized in 1926, when the vilayet of Mosul — which Arabs and Ottomans had long associated with al-Iraq al-Arabi (Arab Iraq), made up of the provinces of Baghdad and Basra — was attached to what was then called the Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq.

On a deeper level, critics of the Middle East’s present borders mistakenly assume that national borders have to be delineated naturally, along rivers and mountains, or around various identities in order to endure. It is a supposition that willfully ignores that most, if not all, of the world’s settled borders are contrived political arrangements, more often than not a result of negotiations between various powers and interests. Moreover, the populations inside these borders are not usually homogenous.

The same holds true for the Middle East, where borders were determined by balancing colonial interests against local resistance. These borders have become institutionalized in the last hundred years. In some cases — such as Egypt, Iran, or even Iraq — they have come to define lands that have long been home to largely coherent cultural identities in a way that makes sense for the modern age. Other, newer entities — Saudi Arabia and Jordan, for instance — have come into their own in the last century. While no one would have talked of a Jordanian identity centuries ago, a nation now exists, and its territorial integrity means a great deal to the Jordanian people.

The conflicts unfolding in the Middle East today, then, are not really about the legitimacy of borders or the validity of places called Syria, Iraq, or Libya. Instead, the origin of the struggles within these countries is over who has the right to rule them. The Syrian conflict, regardless of what it has evolved into today, began as an uprising by all manner of Syrians — men and women, young and old, Sunni, Shiite, Kurdish, and even Alawite — against an unfair and corrupt autocrat, just as Libyans, Egyptians, Tunisians, Yemenis, and Bahrainis did in 2010 and 2011.

The weaknesses and contradictions of authoritarian regimes are at the heart of the Middle East’s ongoing tribulations. Even the rampant ethnic and religious sectarianism is a result of this authoritarianism, which has come to define the Middle East’s state system far more than the Sykes-Picot agreement ever did. [Continue reading…]


Mustafa Badreddine, the pyromaniac playboy who led Hezbollah’s fight in Syria

Last August, Alex Rowell wrote: To close friends, he is “Dhu al-Faqar”—the name, meaning, “the cleaver of vertebrae,” of the legendary double-tipped sword given by the Prophet Muhammad to his son-in-law, Ali bin Abi Talib, the patron imam of Shia Islam. To the Kuwaiti government, who sentenced him to death in 1984 for a spate of audacious bombings on targets including the American and French embassies and the airport, he is Elias Fouad Saab. To prosecutors at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) in The Hague, who are currently trying him in absentia on suspicion of assassinating Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005, he is Mustafa Amine Badreddine. To genteel dining companions — and multiple mistresses — entertained at his seaside home north of Beirut, he is the boat-owning, Mercedes-driving Christian jeweler, Sami Issa.

Or, rather, he was. The Frank Abagnale Jr. of jihad has found yet another preoccupation in the last few years. According to sources as discrepant as the U.S. Treasury Department and a militantly pro-Hezbollah newspaper in Beirut, the man who also goes by the name Safi Badr is currently leading the Party of God’s military intervention against the Syrian uprising, personally sitting in on meetings between President Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah. It’s a distinction that earned the “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” a fresh dose of American sanctions just last week. [Continue reading…]


How the curse of Sykes-Picot still haunts the Middle East

Robin Wright writes: In the Middle East, few men are pilloried these days as much as Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot. Sykes, a British diplomat, travelled the same turf as T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia), served in the Boer War, inherited a baronetcy, and won a Conservative seat in Parliament. He died young, at thirty-nine, during the 1919 flu epidemic. Picot was a French lawyer and diplomat who led a long but obscure life, mainly in backwater posts, until his death, in 1950. But the two men live on in the secret agreement they were assigned to draft, during the First World War, to divide the Ottoman Empire’s vast land mass into British and French spheres of influence. The Sykes-Picot Agreement launched a nine-year process — and other deals, declarations, and treaties — that created the modern Middle East states out of the Ottoman carcass. The new borders ultimately bore little resemblance to the original Sykes-Picot map, but their map is still viewed as the root cause of much that has happened ever since.

“Hundreds of thousands have been killed because of Sykes-Picot and all the problems it created,” Nawzad Hadi Mawlood, the Governor of Iraq’s Erbil Province, told me when I saw him this spring. “It changed the course of history — and nature.”

May 16th will mark the agreement’s hundredth anniversary, amid questions over whether its borders can survive the region’s current furies. “The system in place for the past one hundred years has collapsed,” Barham Salih, a former deputy prime minister of Iraq, declared at the Sulaimani Forum, in Iraqi Kurdistan, in March. “It’s not clear what new system will take its place.”

The colonial carve-up was always vulnerable. Its map ignored local identities and political preferences. Borders were determined with a ruler — arbitrarily. At a briefing for Britain’s Prime Minister H. H. Asquith, in 1915, Sykes famously explained, “I should like to draw a line from the ‘E’ in Acre to the last ‘K’ in Kirkuk.” He slid his finger across a map, spread out on a table at No. 10 Downing Street, from what is today a city on Israel’s Mediterranean coast to the northern mountains of Iraq.

“Sykes-Picot was a mistake, for sure,” Zikri Mosa, an adviser to Kurdistan’s President Masoud Barzani, told me. “It was like a forced marriage. It was doomed from the start. It was immoral, because it decided people’s future without asking them.” [Continue reading…]


Syrian refugees in Lebanon are falling into slavery and exploitation

By Katharine Jones, Coventry University

Five years after the beginning of the Syrian conflict, Syrians now make up the largest refugee population in the world. Of the 5m women, men and children who fled Syria, more than 1m sought protection in Syria’s neighbour and former “colony”, Lebanon. But safety eludes them: hundreds of thousands of refugees who’ve fled to Lebanon now face abject poverty, living in precarious and often unsafe accommodation, and scraping by with the barest of means.

A new report from the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University, supported by the Freedom Fund, has also found that more and more refugees in Lebanon are falling prey to slavery and exploitation.

One of the biggest problems is child labour. We estimate that 60-70% of Syrian refugee children (those under 18) in Lebanon are working. Rates are even higher in the Beqaa Valley in the east of the country, where children aged as young as five pick beans, figs and potatoes. In towns and cities, Syrian children work on the streets, begging, selling flowers or tissues, shining shoes, and cleaning car windscreens. Children also work in markets, factories, auto repair shops, aluminium factories, grocery and coffee shops, in construction and running deliveries.

Syrian families in Lebanon are increasingly marrying their young teenage daughters to older Syrian men, usually aged in their twenties and thirties. While we did not find evidence of child trafficking as has been reported in the refugee camps of Jordan, girls often do not consent to these marriages, and they cannot realistically choose to leave their husbands. Once married, they very probably have no choice about whether or when to have sex, and are likely to face domestic violence.

Beyond child marriage, sexual exploitation is a growing issue for female refugees in Lebanon. Humanitarian organisations in Lebanon often talk about “survival sex” among refugee populations – for example, sex as a form of payment to people smugglers.

[Read more…]


No way out: How Syrians are struggling to find an exit


Eleonora Vio reports: Over the last five years, close to 4.8 million Syrians have fled the conflict in their country by crossing into Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. But as the war drags on, neighbours are sealing their borders. Forced from their homes by airstrikes and fighting on multiple fronts, the vast majority of Syrian asylum seekers now have no legal escape route.

Earlier this week, EU leaders reached a hard-won deal with Turkey aimed at ending a migration crisis that has been building since last year, and that in recent weeks has seen tens of thousands of migrants and refugees stranded in Greece. But the agreement turns a blind eye to the fact that even larger numbers of asylum seekers are stranded back in Syria, unable to reach safety.

Syrians hoping to apply for asylum in Europe first have to physically get there. EU member states closed their embassies in Syria at the start of the conflict, and even embassies and consulates in neighbouring countries have been reluctant to process visa and asylum applications.

When Syria’s war erupted in March 2011, it was initially relatively easy for most refugees to leave the country. Those without the means to fly poured out in waves of tens of thousands across land borders into Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. But one by one, these exits have been restricted or closed off entirely. [Continue reading…]


An ‘empire of women’ in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley

Dylan Collins writes: As young Syrian refugee students celebrated International Women’s Day in the Bekaa Valley this week, education advocate Nora Jumblatt highlighted the increasingly important role of women throughout the refugee community. The war in Syria, despite its chaos and sadness, she said, has given rise to a “little miracle”

The war in Syria has brought about an “empire of women” in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, said civil society leader and education advocate Nora Jumblatt during a celebration of International Women’s Day.

Hundreds of young Syrian refugee girls participated in the festivities held at the Kayany Foundation’s Malala School in Bar Elias, a town equidistant from Beirut and Damascus that sits along the Syrian-Lebanese border. With the help of international organizations, local universities and volunteers, the foundation is empowering a new generation of Syrian women, equipping them with the tools and knowledge they’ll need to rebuild their country. [Continue reading…]


Russia freezes delivery of S-300 missile defense to Iran, reports Kuwaiti newspaper

The Times of Israel reports: ssian President Vladmir Putin reportedly froze the transfer of the S-300 anti-aircraft missile system to Iran after receiving evidence from Israel that Tehran had transferred advanced weapons to Hezbollah.

The Kuwaiti newspaper al-Jarida published the unconfirmed report on Saturday, citing an unnamed source allegedly “familiar” with Putin.

The source said that Putin scuppered the delivery after Israel showed that Iran had repeatedly attempted to transfer the SA-22 Greyhound short-range air defense system to the Lebanese-based terrorist group.

The report also said that Russian pilots claimed to have detected the presence of advance anti-aircraft systems in Hezbollah-controlled territory straddling the Syria-Lebanon border.

Israel, according to the report, has turned a blind eye to the Iranian-backed group’s possession of the Soviet-made SA-5 Gammon surface-to-air missile system, known also as the S-200. [Continue reading…]


Drought in eastern Mediterranean Levant region worst in 900 years, study finds


American Geophysical Union: A new study finds that the recent drought that began in 1998 in the eastern Mediterranean Levant region, which comprises Cyprus, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Turkey, is likely the worst drought of the past nine centuries.

Scientists reconstructed the Mediterranean’s drought history by studying tree rings as part of an effort to understand the region’s climate and what shifts water to or from the area. Thin rings indicate dry years while thick rings show years when water was plentiful.

In addition to identifying the driest years, the science team discovered patterns in the geographic distribution of droughts that provides a “fingerprint” for identifying the underlying causes. Together, these data show the range of natural variation in Mediterranean drought occurrence, which will allow scientists to differentiate droughts made worse by human-induced global warming. The research is part of NASA’s ongoing work to improve the computer models that simulate climate now and in the future.

“The magnitude and significance of human climate change requires us to really understand the full range of natural climate variability,” said Ben Cook, lead author and climate scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University in New York City. [Continue reading…]