Thursday, March 28, 2013

The battle for Rifi's successor

[Originally posted at NOW]

That former Prime Minister Najib Miqati brought down his own cabinet on Friday over a failure to agree on the leadership of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces (ISF) is testament to the extraordinary political significance of the position. As NOW reported last week, MPs from the March 14 coalition as well as the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) had urged cabinet to extend the term of current director-general Major General Ashraf Rifi, who is seen as a political ally of theirs. When the cabinet majority loyal to March 14’s rivals Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement opposed the idea in a session last Friday, Miqati announced his resignation.

March 14 is still attempting to extend Rifi’s term, presenting parliament speaker Nabih Berri with a proposed draft law Wednesday that would put the issue to parliament in its next session. But in the event that such efforts fail – as Rifi himself has suggested they will – then a fierce battle over Rifi’s successor may follow.

In the wake of Miqati’s resignation, allegations emerged from sources including PSP leader Walid Jumblatt that the March 8 coalition had pushed for controversial former ISF head Gen. Ali al-Hajj to replace Rifi. Indeed, al-Hajj himself proclaimed his entitlement to the position on Saturday. ISF sources, by contrast, told NOW that, according to internal procedure, the post would go to Rifi’s deputy, Inspector Gen. Roger Salem.

From March 14’s perspective, few candidates could be less welcome than al-Hajj, whose tensions with the Future Movement date back over more than a decade. Head of security for former PM Rafiq Hariri since 1992, Hajj had come to be distrusted by Hariri over time due to his close ties with Syrian military intelligence. He was thus fired in 2000, after which Syria appointed him head of the ISF in the Beqaa. By 2004, he had risen to the ISF premiership, and incurred Hariri’s further suspicions by reducing his personal protection unit from 40 officers to 8. When Hariri was assassinated in a car bomb the following year, al-Hajj was accused of tampering with evidence at the crime scene, and was arrested in a pre-dawn raid on the orders of Detlev Mehlis, commissioner of the UN International Independent Investigation Commission (UNIIIC) into Hariri’s killing. Though he was eventually released from prison in 2009 due to lack of evidence, there remains a conviction in March 14 and other circles that he was not fully innocent, with Walid Jumblatt saying Friday that he continues to “consider him politically involved in [Hariri’s] assassination.”

Accordingly, should al-Hajj secure nomination to the post, it would likely provoke major objections from March 14. “Al-Hajj cannot take over this position,” Future MP Ahmad Fatfat told NOW. “If we imagine the scenario of al-Hajj coming back to power, we are imagining the return of the Syrian intelligence dominance era.”

On the same question, Democratic Renewal (Tajaddod) Movement former MP Mosbah al-Ahdab – who, as an early opponent of Syria’s occupation of Lebanon, has had his own run-ins with the Damascus regime – told NOW that, “unfortunately, March 8 is trying to put their hands on all the security institutions in Lebanon, and this is not correct and not viable.”

Without a cabinet currently in place, however, it’s unclear how al-Hajj would actually obtain nomination. On Wednesday, NOW met with former judicial police commander Gen. Anwar Yehya at the ISF’s military beach club in Ras Beirut, who said ISF rules clearly dictate that, as the next-highest ranking official after Rifi, Inspector Gen. Roger Salem will take over as director-general when Rifi steps down on April 1st, until Salem himself reaches the maximum age of 59 on June 13th. Al-Hajj’s claims that he outranks Salem, Yehya added, were invalidated by an April 13th, 2005 decree to cancel al-Hajj’s ISF position and move him to the Interior Ministry.

“The only way for al-Hajj to become director-general is if a cabinet is formed and it meets and agrees to appoint him by a two-thirds majority,” Yehya told NOW. By implication, the March 8 coalition would need to make up at least two-thirds of the next cabinet – a prospect that looks improbable amid the various current proposals for non-partisan “unity,” “salvation,” and technocratic cabinets.

Assuming al-Hajj is not appointed, there remains the question of who will replace Salem in June. Yehya told NOW that, as next-highest in rank, the post would go to Brigadier Gen. Ibrahim Basbous, who will remain eligible for office for another year at his current rank, and two more if he is promoted to Major General.

While Yehya declined to discuss the political leanings of Salem and Basbous, he remarked that Rifi is unlikely to have appointed successors to whom he is personally opposed.

If this is the case, the ISF may well remain amicable to March 14 for the foreseeable future after all.

Yara Chehayed contributed reporting.

Friday, March 22, 2013

March 14 scrambles to keep top security ally

[Originally posted at NOW]

In an abrupt departure from wrangling over electoral laws, MPs from the Future Movement along with their March 14 allies and Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party have made urgent attempts this week to pass a draft law that would raise the mandatory retirement age for top security officials, several of whom would otherwise be forced to step down later this year.

These officials include 59-year-old army chief General Jean Qahwaji and Internal Security Forces (ISF) head Major General Ashraf Rifi, who will turn 59 in April – the maximum age for the post. The draft law would extend both men’s terms for another three years.

President Michel Suleiman submitted the bill to cabinet on Thursday. Rifi himself expressed doubts Friday that it would pass cabinet, saying it “needs the approval of two thirds of the ministers and this is not possible because more than half of them object to an extension of my term.” Both Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), who collectively occupy 9 out of 30 seats, have explicitly opposed the proposal, arguing the government should appoint successors to the posts. Should Rifi’s extension be rejected and a successor not appointed, Rifi indicated his deputy Brigadier General Roger Salem would replace him – though Salem, himself, is due to reach retirement age this year. Rifi could not be reached for comment.

The loss of Rifi would be taken by March 14 as a significant setback. Though the movement’s leaders have officially touted the draft law as a non-partisan move to preserve national stability, few observers are in doubt that their priority is keeping Rifi in place, and indeed one Future MP admitted as much to NOW.

“After the [October 19, 2012] assassination of [ISF Information Branch head Brigadier General] Wissam al-Hassan, our security is exposed to many factors and parties, and Rifi is bravely filling his station,” said MP Ahmad Fatfat. “We trust Rifi and need him in this position. If someone is trying to move Rifi away, then he is definitely part of the assassination process, and he wants us as March 14 to be exposed,” he added, in a likely reference to Hezbollah and the FPM.

“Even Jumblatt is feeling the need for this extension,” added Fatfat, referring to the former March 14 firebrand (and long-rumored assassination target) whose party now has three ministers in the March 8-aligned cabinet. Echoing the official March 14 line, Jumblatt says his support for Rifi’s extension derives from general security concerns.

Rifi’s close ties to March 14, and the Future Movement in particular, have long been something of an open secret. “There’s a certain balance in security, based on the fact that some institutions are controlled by March 8 and others are controlled by March 14,” said former Tripoli MP Mosbah al-Ahdab of the Democratic Renewal (Tajaddod) Movement. “[Rifi] is one of the main people representing [March 14].”

This is further borne out in the US embassy cables leaked in 2010, which generally portray Rifi as a determined opponent of the Syrian regime and its key Lebanese ally, Hezbollah. The cables also make clear that sees himself and the ISF he helped build as locked in a “race against time” to neutralize the threats he believes these parties pose to Lebanon. Former US ambassador Jeffrey Feltman wrote of the ISF’s “connections to [Future Movement leader] Saad Hariri and its heavily Sunni (i.e., essentially anti-Hizballah [sic]) officer ranks.” Such ‘connections’ may even be military – one cable from 2008 quotes Jumblatt claiming that Rifi was assisting Hariri in amassing a 15,000-strong militia. In the same year, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea also reportedly told former US chargé d’affaires Michele Sison that both he and Jumblatt were trying to buy ammunition from Rifi for their own militias.

Whatever the exact nature of Rifi’s ties to March 14, the bloc evidently deems him an invaluable asset – a fact which analysts say reflects the top-heavy structure of Lebanese security institutions in general.

“This demonstrates the continuing importance of individual authorities within the Lebanese security architecture,” said Elias Muhanna, assistant professor at Brown University and author of the Qifa Nabki blog. “There is no such thing as institutional memory in these intelligence branches; the inner circle is extremely small and therefore extremely valuable.”

Indeed, this heavy reliance on individuals is a key weakness of the system that requires reform, according to Ahdab.

“I think this all needs to be reviewed,” he told NOW. “Because prolonging the mandate for Rifi also means maintaining the same security structure and renewing other [security] positions. So the question is do we want to renew this, or would we like to change it?”

“Of course, we’d like to change it. Perhaps the timing is not right. But definitely this is not the solution; this is prolonging a situation where the state is absolutely losing ground and not controlling what is happening.”

“We saw that starting in Tripoli, and now it’s spreading all over Lebanon.”

Yara Chehayed contributed reporting.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The good news: Lebanese still don't want civil war (yet)

[Originally posted at NOW]

What are we to make of the past 48 hours in Lebanon, during which angry young men have blocked roads, tipped over bins, set tires ablaze, and generally made a scene around the country in response to the seemingly-unprovoked beatings of four senior Sunni clerics in two Shiite neighborhoods of Beirut?

Official sentiment has tended markedly toward doom and gloom. “Lebanon, in the last 24 hours, has endured the most dangerous security situation since [the 2005 assassination of Rafiq Hariri],” said army Chief Gen. Jean Qahwaji. “I see dark clouds on the horizon,”warned Interior Minister Marwan Charbel.

And yet, almost without anyone noticing, life is continuing as normal. Faced with a bona fide casus belli – the sight of one Dar al-Fatwa sheikh hospitalized in a neck brace; another with his beard humiliatingly shaved off – not one Sunni in Beirut has retaliated with violence. Sidon’s Ahmad al-Assir, who in the past has deployed gunmen at the mere sight of Hezbollah posters, and who is known in Beirut’s tougher Sunni suburbs as the “Lion of the Sunnis”, made no noticeable departure from his normal routine. Even in Tripoli, where RPG-battles are a near-monthly occurrence, the fallout was limited to a few gunshots and a grenade – the sort of thing that typically follows, say, a routine politician’s speech. For all the sectarian rhetoric, and all the loose talk of “spillover” from Syria, it’s been made clear once again that Lebanon’s Sunnis are not looking for a serious fight with their Shiite compatriots.

Equally, Shiite leaders have done their utmost to douse the flames. Clearly both concerned and embarrassed that one of “their own” would carry out so brazenly sectarian an assault, both Hezbollah and Amal reportedly gave an immediate green light to arrest the individuals responsible. Accordingly, seven suspects have already been apprehended, and Hezbollah deputy secretary-general Naim Qassem has called for their “severe punishment”. Just to hammer home the point, representatives of the Shiite Higher Council paid a visit to Grand Mufti Sheikh Rashid Qabbani earlier today.

In sum, this tells us that Lebanon’s Sunni and Shiite bosses remain distinctly opposed to the idea of sectarian war – for now, at any rate. I for one take this is as good news. The bad news, however, is that their partisans on the street grow further antagonized every day. “We hate the Shiites till death”, as one Tariq al-Jedideh resident put it to NOW’s Matt Nash and Yara Chehayed yesterday. The cycle of contained violence, alternating with defusion and temporary calm, therefore, seems destined to continue.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Aqaba, where the Arab nation was once thinkable

Aqaba, with Sinai on horizon (Alex Rowell)

The bus ride from the Jordanian capital to the southern port city of Aqaba is long enough to get a dedicated cigarette break half-way through. Having nearly asphyxiated to death the night before on a plethora of substances inhaled (largely though not entirely at second-hand) in Amman’s fine Dionysian establishments, I declined to join my fellow passengers outside on the flat, grey-beige rock plains of Jordan’s western desert. I did, however, have reason beside a hangover to feel a marked jump in the blood pressure: a sudden first glimpse, just a few hundred metres away, of the old Hejaz railway; built by the Ottomans to ship pilgrims from Constantinople to Mecca, and later blown apart by Arab nationalists fighting alongside a certain Thomas Edward Lawrence.

It’s probably healthy for Brits in the Arab world to avoid Lawrencian aspirations, if only for the cruel fate to which he eventually delivered the good men who had given him their trust and respect (to say nothing of their blood). Yet one cannot avoid – or at any rate, I couldn’t avoid – a shiver as we rolled past the Petra and Wadi Rum he had so admired, nearing the destination whose very name seems to have bewitched and tormented him.

The conquest of Aqaba was the first major victory for the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans in World War I, and certainly the greatest personal one for Lawrence. In his memoir, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, he writes early on of the

Importance of Akaba [sic], the only Turkish port left in the Red Sea, the nearest to the Suez Canal, the nearest to the Hejaz Railway, on the left flank of the Beersheba army […]1

The city proceeds to dominate the next hundred or so pages as he agonises over how best to take it and salivates over the glories it will bring (“in so vital a matter as Akaba we could not afford a mistake”; “Akaba spelt plenty in food, money, guns, advisers”; “I still saw the liberation of Syria happening in steps, of which Akaba was the indispensable first”; “We had one objective only, the capture of Akaba”2).

The problem the Arabs faced was that a naval approach would swiftly succumb to formidable Ottoman defences embanked in the spiky mountains just a couple of miles inland (aqaba in Arabic – عقبة – means “obstacle”, thus the self-deprecating Jordanian joke about their country being one whose only port is an obstacle, and whose sea is dead). Lawrence’s audacious solution was to take a 600-mile detour through the desert, attacking the Ottomans by land from the east. It proved successful – “The enemy had never imagined attack from the interior, and of all their great works not one trench or post faced inland”3 – and on July 6, 1917, the Ottomans surrendered with no casualties on either side.

The forbidding mountains behind Aqaba, within which the Ottomans built their defences (Alex Rowell)

Lawrence’s description of entering the city reads like Hunter S Thompson recalling a heavier-than-average weekend:

For months Akaba had been the horizon of our minds, the goal: we had had no thought, we had refused thought of anything beside. Now, in achievement, we were a little despising the entities which had spent their extremest effort on an object whose attainment changed nothing radical either in mind or body.
In the blank light of victory we could scarcely identify ourselves. We spoke with surprise, sat emptily, fingered upon our white skirts; doubtful if we could understand or learn whom we were. Others’ noise was a dreamlike unreality, a singing in ears drowned deep in water. Against the astonishment of this unasked-for continued life we did not know how to turn our gift to account. Especially for me was it hard, because though my sight was sharp, I never saw men’s features: always I peered beyond, imagining for myself a spirit-reality of this or that: and to-day each man owned his desire so utterly that he was fulfilled in it, and became meaningless.4

I wager that few visitors to Aqaba today feel quite so strongly about their arrival, but much remains of the “unassailable base”5 that the Arabs then made of the city, whence they proceeded to support Allied forces in the Sinai, Palestine and eventually Syria. The Mamluk-era fortress, for example, next to which Emir Faisal (later King Faisal of Iraq) made his home, is perhaps nowadays the city’s preeminent tourist attraction. Equally striking, though, is the 130-metre-tall flagpole erected in the adjacent Revolution Square, undoubtedly visible from the nearby Israeli and Egyptian resorts of Eilat and Taba, respectively, on the other side of the Gulf of Aqaba.  Unique (as far as I know) among such structures, it bears not the Jordanian flag but the old flag of the Arab Revolt – the same flag that briefly flew in Damascus and Beirut until the 1920 Battle of Maysalun crushed the grand dream of the Arab nation once and for all.

Aqaba fortress (Alex Rowell)

The Arab Revolt flag, 130m above Revolution Square to the west of the fortress (Alex Rowell)

Indeed, if Aqaba is a relic of Arab nationalism, it is a distinctly bittersweet one, given that the city today is more suggestive of Jordan’s accommodation with the Balfour Declaration. While tourists might marvel at the sight of Jordan, Israel and Egypt all at once (with Saudi Arabia just around the corner), this certainly wasn’t what Faisal’s men had in mind in 1917.

Recall that the Brits made no fewer than three simultaneous, and mutually incompatible, promises of Arab land during the war: the first to Faisal’s father, Sharif Hussein of Mecca, in 1915; the second to themselves and the French in 1916; and the third to the World Zionist Organization in 19176.Of the three, only the last remains implemented today, and nowhere more so than in Aqaba, where Israeli weekenders sunbathe scarcely a kilometre away, secure in the knowledge that neighbouring Arab governments are bomb-scanning their own citizens to protect them. It’s a rather different story on the Gazan and Lebanese borders.

Not that the Israelis can rest entirely easy. At least five rocket attacks on Eilat have been reported in the last three years, all of them seemingly fired by jihadists in the Sinai, possibly though not necessarily in coordination with Hamas. Extremely inaccurate, they have so far failed to actually hit any Israelis – indeed the only death in the recent series occurred in 2010 when one missed Israel altogether, landing by the Intercontinental Hotel in Aqaba, killing a Jordanian cab driver.

Israeli resort of Eilat as seen from Aqaba (Alex Rowell)

Eilat was hit by a “successful” suicide bombing in 2007, though, when a 21-year-old from Gaza killed himself along with 3 Israelis in a bakery. And in the heady days of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi – the Jordanian warlord and founder of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) – a barrage of rockets launched from Aqaba itself killed a Jordanian soldier after missing the two US navy ships they’d been aimed at. That was eight years ago, and Zarqawi has since been killed by the Americans, but the emergence now of the AQI spinoff Jabhat al-Nusra next door in Syria is starting to put the wind up a few Jordanians who believe they’ve seen this film before.

Not an entirely sleepy neighbourhood, in other words, but as I say this is not because of any ill-will between Amman and Tel Aviv. Quite to the contrary, the Knesset’s chief antagonists – Islamists and Palestinians – are, to lesser extents, the Hashemite monarch’s too. It’s perhaps more accurate, then, to say Aqaba (and Jordan as a whole) represents not so much the defeat of the Arab Revolt as the severe downsizing and tribalisation of it: King Abdullah II, after all, being the great-great-grandson of Sharif Hussein (as well as the great-grandnephew of Emir Faisal). Ironic as the giant flag in Revolution Square might seem in that light, it also serves a nobler, if unintended purpose: reminding the visitor that the Arabs’ title to the surrounding land came first, and was only dishonourably revoked by callous British imperial duplicity.

Postscript: My girlfriend protests that I kill the joy of our weekend holidays by turning them exclusively into historical-political essays. I ought to add, then, that the sea at Aqaba could not be less “dead”, with its dozen or so easily accessible coral reefs, complete with dolphins, turtles, sharks, eels, and kaleidoscopic galaxies of fish. A scuba dive or at least a snorkel is a must while you’re there. A stroll along the waterfront by the old port – where glass bottom (or indeed “glass baton”) boat rides can be acquired – is also good fun.

For 25JD ($35), a boat like this will take you snorkelling for an hour around innumerable coral reefs (Alex Rowell)

1 Lawrence, T.E., Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph (1922), 2008 Vintage Classics paperback edition, pp. 172-3
2 Ibid., respectively: p. 180; p. 281; p. 282; p. 297
3 Ibid., p. 317
4 Ibid., p. 322
5 Ibid., p. 321
6 For an excellent history of this, see Eugene Rogan, The Arabs: A History (2012), Penguin revised second paperback edition, chapter 6

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Journalist deportation violates 'dissociation', press freedom

[Originally posted at NOW]

For journalists risking their lives to cover the war in Syria under indiscriminate aerial and artillery fire, as well as the ubiquitous threat of kidnapping, the moment of touching down at Beirut’s Rafiq Hariri airport ought to be one of relief.

Yet, for one European reporter last weekend, the ordeal was not to conclude so soon. Arriving from Amman after a stint in Aleppo Province, the journalist – who requested anonymity – was detained and questioned for twelve hours by airport authorities (known as General Security) before being denied entry and deported.

His offense, he was told, was having a stamp on his passport issued by the Free Syrian Army – stamping passports being an increasingly common practice for journalists traveling through rebel-held territory. A “political decision” had been made, General Security informed him, to refuse him entry. He was given no further explanation.

According to General Security media affairs director General Munir Aqiqi, the journalist was denied entry for reasons of “higher state interests” (in Arabic: “المصلحة العليا للدولة”) – a broad and sometimes controversial legal principle, analogous to the French raison d’État, that was also recently used to reject a draft law allowing women to pass their nationality on to their children.

Aqiqi would not confirm to NOW whether there was any specific policy to deny all entrants with such stamps, though he argued the stamps were invalid because, “There is no state called ‘Free Syrian Army’.” He also claimed the journalist had no available press credentials or other evidence of his profession – a claim denied by the journalist, who told NOW, “They did not question my profession. They actually have a copy of my press card.”

In either case, General Security’s decision constitutes a clear violation of press freedom, according to Ayman Mhanna, director of the Samir Kassir Eyes (SKEyes) Center for Media and Cultural Freedom

“As long as there is no printed legal text that is published in the official gazette, decisions like this are illegal,” he told NOW. “It’s not like a discretionary decision. A law has to exist.”

Mhanna also took issue with the application of the ‘higher state interests’ principle. “The mere fact that [General Security] says this is for the ‘higher interests of the state’ is ridiculous. Are [they] saying that journalists pose a threat to this?”

“Unfortunately, we’re back to these very vague, very elastic expressions that can have so many different meanings, and the point is there is absolutely no legal document that justifies or sanctions such a decision.” Mhanna added that SKEyes would be following up the case with General Security and issuing a statement of condemnation.

Lawyer and constitutional expert Marwan Saqr also told NOW the “higher state interests” principle, which he described as “very vague and very broad,” had likely been misused in this case. “This law has to be used under the control of the courts. If the government enforces it, the court must decide afterward whether the higher interests of the state were truly at risk.”

Accordingly, Saqr even suggested that the journalist might have a valid legal case against the government. “This is the type of situation where I think he could go to the courts. Legally I think he might win the case, because in view of the circumstances, the Free Syrian Army is a de facto authority now on the border checkpoints that are under its control. If he can justify that he has suffered damages, and he sued the state for that, he might win. But this would take many years, of course.”

The legal pretext was further derided by political analysts. “National security is not at stake here,” said Dr. Imad Salamey, professor of political science at the Lebanese American University. “If the presence of an opposition figure or someone who has links to the opposition in one way or another is a breach of the sovereignty and security of Lebanon, then definitely somebody must look into the activities of the Syrian ambassador and the regime itself,” he told NOW.

As such, Salamey argues the decision calls into question the government’s declared policy of dissociation from the Syrian conflict. “This tells us that the government of Lebanon is not neutral in the Syrian conflict. It’s obviously taking sides by recognizing the stamp of the Assad regime and not the stamp of the Free Syrian Army. Neutrality means being equally distant from both sides, which is obviously not the case here.”

To the extent NOW has been able to ascertain, this journalist’s case is the first of its kind. NOW spoke to several foreign journalists based in Beirut who have also had their passports stamped by the Free Syrian Army, and none reported facing any problems returning to the country.

Nevertheless, given the experience of the journalist in this case, those planning to work in Syria may be advised to take new precautions. NOW learned from other reporters that the Free Syrian Army will agree to stamp a slip of paper instead of a passport if requested. Others have opted to use multiple passports, where available.

And if more such cases occur, others still will inevitably begin to avoid Lebanon as a place of work.

Yara Chehayed contributed reporting.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Assir unrest stokes minority fears

[Originally posted at NOW, with Yara Chehayed]

For a mosque reported by its imam to be “under siege” by the army, the Bilal bin Rabah mosque in Sidon’s Abra neighborhood looked remarkably calm when NOW arrived Thursday afternoon. Though there was a pair of armed personnel carriers (APCs) on a parallel street, no attempt was made to prevent our approach, and none of the half-dozen partisans of Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir standing outside his mosque appeared at all distressed. Indeed, on the surface, it seemed a more or less typical day in the city of Sidon as a whole.

Yet beneath this superficial calm lie widespread fears among the city’s residents, not least those belonging to the minority Christian and Shiite communities. Just a five minute drive uphill from Assir’s mosque, the long beards and face-veils give way to posters of (now former) Pope Benedict XVI, signaling one’s arrival at one of Sidon’s few remaining Christian neighborhoods.

It is here, in upper Abra, that NOW meets the village mayor, Elias Mchantaf – the kind of well-heeled, middle-aged Christian who habitually breaks into French while talking, and who looks uncannily like a green-eyed brother of the Michel Suleiman portrait hung on the wall behind him. Abra, Mchantaf tells us over coffee in his office overlooking an expansive olive grove, was entirely Christian before the outbreak of civil war in 1975. Migration (and emigration) over the course of the many battles that have since struck Sidon have brought the Christian presence down to about 15% today. For those who remain, Ahmad al-Assir is in many ways symbolic of their decline – his mosque, built with the mayor’s permission in 1997, was the first in the area.

Mchantaf insists that the Christians have no problems with their Muslim neighbors, and that his personal relations with Assir are cordial. But there are hints throughout the conversation of a more complicated picture. The sheikh certainly keeps him busy. “Ten days ago, [Assir] told me Hezbollah was using two apartments in Abra to stock weapons. The owners of the apartments came to me and said, ‘Here are the keys if you want to check yourself.’ Then Assir told me there was an attempt to kidnap him, so we sent the army to secure his mosque, and he started saying the army was targeting him. Now there’s this problem with his friend’s car,” referring to the dispute that led to the alleged “siege” on Tuesday and consequent blocking of roads by his supporters across the country.

Such frequent unrest in the area keeps local Christians ill-at-ease. One upper Abra resident, requesting anonymity, told NOW that, “Of course we are scared. Our problems here are worse than in Tripoli, because we have [the Palestinian refugee camp] Ain al-Hilweh.”

That sentiment was echoed by a Shiite schoolteacher NOW met in central Sidon. “The new danger is the camp. If Assir is allied with militants there, this is a game-changer.” Ain al-Hilweh witnessed lethal clashes earlier this week between secularists and Islamists amid reports that one faction threatened “war” against anyone targeting Sunnis in Sidon. Moreover, there has long been speculation that Fadel Shaker, a celebrity partisan of Assir’s, has cultivated ties with militants inside the camp via his brother, a leader of the jihadist Jund al-Sham outfit.

Back in Abra, NOW managed to secure a quick interview with Assir himself in his press office across the street from his mosque (newly covered, incidentally, with a thick metal roof – see above photos). Reclining in his usual armchair, with a pair of fuzzy slippers on his feet, the sheikh could not have looked more relaxed. “Nothing is happening today,” he admitted. “Tomorrow, we’re calling on our brothers from all over Lebanon to come to the mosque and end the siege peacefully. We told them to have no confrontations with the army, even though the army insults us when we come to pray, and arrested a teenage boy the other day.”

We ask about Ain al-Hilweh. “I’ve had several calls from the camp, from people saying we are ready to support you, but on a personal level I have no connection with the fighters or their groups.” Regarding the Fadel Shaker rumours: “Sheikh Abdul Rahman Shmandar has served his sentence in Roumieh [prison], and is now living with Fadel Shaker, and neither of them have any connection to Jund al-Sham.”

As for the fears of Sidon’s minorities, Assir becomes somewhat exasperated. “As I’ve said several times, our problem is not with the Shiite sect. You can go down to Sidon and see all the shops owned by Shiites are open and people are working normally.”

That much is true. In the predominantly-Shiite Haarat al-Saida neighborhood, NOW spoke to shopkeepers selling Hezbollah, Amal, and black Shiite religious flags, whose tones were more defiant than afraid. “Why should we care if Assir is holding a protest tomorrow? He does it every week,” one said.

Nor were they concerned about the economic impact of Assir’s protests on their businesses. “On the contrary, it’s their loss and our gain. When he closes the streets there, more customers come to us here.”

Yet not everyone in Haarat al-Saida was quite so sanguine. “We are scared,” admitted a Palestinian woman a few shops down the street.

“In fact, we are thinking of leaving this area, permanently.”

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Zionists and anti-Zionists finally agree (that Syrian rebels are "terrorists")

[Originally posted at NOW]

There was a time, not very long ago at all, when being called a “terrorist” by the Israeli chief of staff earned one the instant respect and support of the anti-Zionist intelligentsia. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, after all, so what nobler title could there be for the warrior for Palestinian liberation than this ultimate vilification, this summa of demonization in the enemy’s eyes? Indeed, to disavow “terror”, as Yasser Arafat did in 1988, was nothing less than craven capitulation to Empire and shameful treachery to the cause.

Alas, the “anti-imperial” left has undergone strange contortions in the last two years, and an unlikely consensus is beginning to be forged between the bitterest antagonists. Already reviled by the likes of As’ad AbuKhalil as “armed fanatical gangs […] inheritors of Bin Laden […] terrorists and not revolutionaries”, the Syrian opposition was later partly designated a "terrorist organization" by the White House. This was ostensibly on the grounds that the brigade in question, Jabhat al-Nusra, was deliberately killing civilians, but on Monday State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland even condemned as “terrorism” a rebel attack on Syrian regime soldiers, to whom she inexplicably referred as “noncombatants”. Reporters in the room at the time must have briefly wondered if they were not at a Russian Foreign Ministry press conference.

Yet equally interesting on Monday was Israeli military chief Benny Gantz’ warning that “the terrorist organizations [in Syria] are becoming stronger on the ground.” Of particular concern to Gantz was that Bashar al-Assad’s most dangerous weapons “could fall into the hands of these terrorist organizations” (draw what inference you will about the hands they’re currently in).

How extraordinary to see the Israeli army, the Arab “left” and the American administration singing in such resonant harmony. Evidently, whatever their differences over Gaza, the settlements and the occupation, they battle as happy comrades in this latest round of the War on Terror.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Jordan's multiplying Syria woes

[Originally posted at NOW]

While the international community often singles out Lebanon as the principal victim of so-called “spillover” from the armed conflict in Syria, less discussed but arguably no less dramatic are the transformations the two-year-long war is effecting on its southern neighbor, Jordan.

Like Lebanon, the Hashemite Kingdom has officially pursued a policy of neutrality in the Syrian conflict, calling for a “diplomatic and peaceful solution to the problem.” Yet despite such caution, the war next door threatens to cripple the already-burdened country with a plethora of serious humanitarian, security, and socioeconomic strains.

These are perhaps most evident in the now-notorious Zaatari refugee camp, erected last summer in the desert east of the city of Mafraq, near the Syrian border. Originally intended for 60,000 Syrian refugees, it now houses over 146,000 in fabric tents, with thousands of new arrivals every week.

Living conditions inside are very poor, with poverty rife and scant access to basic food, water, and healthcare needs, according to an aid worker in the camp NOW met in Amman over the weekend. Between 7 and 10 babies are born inside the camp every day – sometimes dying just days later. Infectious diseases such as polio and malaria are on the rise, and reportedly spreading beyond the camp’s borders. So desperate are some families for money, said the aid worker, that they are selling their daughters as brides for as little as JD100 ($140) and even prostituting them for JD10 ($14).

Accordingly, frustration among residents is increasingly leading to organized protests and even violence, sometimes met with responses from Jordanian security forces. Tensions and fears are further stoked by Syrian mukhabarrat, or regime informants, who are widely believed to have infiltrated the camp.

Yet Syria’s shadow over Jordan extends far beyond Zaatari, and not just because there are an additional 270,000 refugees elsewhere in the country (projected to total 1 million by year-end). The refugee issue aside, the conflict presents a significant potential security threat to the Kingdom, according to Jumana Ghneimat, editor-in-chief of Al-Ghad newspaper.

“The situation here is very sensitive and very dangerous,” Ghneimat told NOW. “There are Salafist groups here in Jordan that are going to Syria. About 300 Jordanian Salafists are fighting in Syria now. This is a big problem for Jordan that could repeat the Iraq scenario. If you remember, Jordanian Salafists went there and then returned and made many problems here in 2005,” a reference to the series of hotel bombs in Amman that killed some 60 people, and were later claimed by al-Qaeda in Iraq, led by the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

“So maybe when they’re finished in Syria they’ll come back here and conduct new operations,” said Ghneimat. A leading Syrian opposition brigade, Jabhat al-Nusra, was designated a terror organization by the United States for its alleged affiliation with AQI.

Additionally, of perhaps more immediate concern is the drain on the economy, which faces an unprecedented crisis. For the first time, Jordanians may face regular electricity blackouts this summer, à laLebanon. “It’s a possible scenario,” said Ghneimat. “If they don’t increase the electricity output, it might happen. It already happened once or twice last year, when we didn’t have so many refugees, so what do you think will happen this year, or the next?” Such cuts could potentially be widely disruptive, Ghneimat added, since Jordanians do not have easy access to generators, as do the Lebanese.

Water is a similar concern. “Jordan is the third poorest country in the world for water. We already face a serious water problem. To provide now for more than 400,000 Syrians is a huge [challenge],” said Ghneimat.

These shortages in turn add strain to the government’s budget, which currently subsidizes such commodities. “The refugees put certain pressures on the infrastructure, consuming water and electricity which are subsidized,” said Dr. Yusuf Mansur, economist and CEO of Envision Consulting Group. They also increase “demand for education, pressure public schools, and public healthcare, when it’s available.”

Mansur argues, however, that there are also economic benefits to the situation. “It’s a mixed bag,” he told NOW. “In terms of tourism, those in countries like Lebanon who used to go to Syria will now opt for the safer retreat of Jordan. In terms of investment, as well, it has diverted some capital to Jordan, because other countries were more affected by Syria than us.”

As for disruption to trade routes through Syria, “this is beneficial for the Aqaba port,” said Mansur. “From Aqaba goods can go through the Suez Canal and then the Mediterranean.” Another possibility is re-routing land exports and imports through Iraq, he added.

However, potential economic upsides notwithstanding, there appears to be little prospect of overall improvement in a situation fuelled by a war whose viciousness shows no sign of abating. When NOW returned to Beirut from Amman on Sunday, it was on one of the first planes to take a new route south and west over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, approaching Lebanon from the Mediterranean. The airline announced the change had been made to avoid the previous path over Syria in the interest of “the safety of passengers.” For the time being, it seems, Jordan is destined to remain what the Zaatari camp aid worker called “a gas tank not far from a lit match.”

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

How to cover Syria from Stanislaus County, California

[Originally posted at NOW]

[A humble contribution to the recent offerings of helpful tips for fellow journalists covering Syria]

1. Maintain a diverse list of credible sources. Publish the testimonies of a couple of strangers who email you from time to time, saying they live in Syria. An obscure blogger here and there can also prove handy, regardless of where they live. Remember that the more your sources’ accounts differ from those of the hundreds of professional journalists inside Syria, the more accurate they’re likely to be.

2. See through the propaganda. Understand that every Sunni Muslim is a member of al-Qaeda, bent on slaughtering infidels and reinstating the Caliphate. There was a time when this kind of presumption was called Islamophobia, but nowadays it’s common sense. Difficult as it may seem to believe that over 70% of Syrians have actually been zealous Bin Ladenists all these years, that’s the only explanation for the situation in Syria today. Ignorant Western journalists in Beirut will argue that the bulk of the Syrian opposition is nationalist, fed up with their unelected and unwanted dictator. But you know that these “journalists” are in turn mere agents of al-Qaeda’s notorious proxy, the Hariri press office.

3. (NB: Palestinian Sunni Muslims are the exception to the above rule. Sure, some Palestinian groups might go on about “jihad” from time to time. Some might even be armed and funded by Islamist regimes. But in no way can they be compared to the Syrian opposition. Palestinians fighting Israel and Syrians fighting Assad quite simply have nothing in common.)

4. Take a courageous stand. Hezbollah is getting a lot of heat these days for its staunch support of Assad. Counter this by posting glamorous old photos of Hassan Nasrallah aiming rifles toward Israel.

5. Be objective. Though the Syrian opposition is certainly among the most infamous terrorist groups of all time, the regime is not entirely without fault. When Assad air-strikes a Palestinian refugee camp, for example, condemn him with forceful words like “lousy”.

6. Finally, when in doubt, fall back on the Golden Rule of Independent Thinking: Always disagree with US foreign policy. Now, sometimes, US foreign policy might start to look dangerously similar to your own position – e.g., when it classifies a powerful opposition brigade as al-Qaeda, or when it repeatedly rejects even indirect military intervention in Syria. In this case, change the subject to al-Qaeda’s alarming and growing infiltration of Human Rights Watch.

'Spillover' to remain limited, for now

[Originally posted at NOW]

Though the prospect of Syria’s war ‘spilling over’ into Lebanon is often presented as a mere hypothetical, in actual fact the phenomenon has for some time been a fait accompli. On more than a dozen occasions in recent years, events next door have prompted Tripoli’s mostly Sunni, anti-Assad Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood to go to war with its chiefly Alawite, pro-regime Jabal Mohsen neighbors. Yet when a Free Syrian Army (FSA) official in Homs called on Lebanese Sunnis to undertake military operations against Hezbollah on Lebanese soil last week, he fuelled concerns that a hitherto localized Sunni-Alawite feud could grow into nationwide Sunni-Shiite clashes.

Such fears were only compounded when the FSA claimed Tuesday to have killed several Hezbollah militants near Damascus, adding to the three Lebanese Shiites reported killed earlier in the month, that rebels claim were also members of the pro-Assad party. Only a day before, a gathering of Sunni and Shiite notables in the Baalbek-Hermel district had called on Hezbollah to stop fighting in Syria in order to avoid “dragging Lebanon to war.” Hezbollah denies it is sending fighters into Syria.

However, analysts argue there are good reasons to expect ‘spillover’ from Syria to remain limited for the time being. For one thing, it is in the interest of both the regime and the opposition to keep the fight on Syrian soil, according to Riad Kahwaji, founder of the Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA).

“Anything is possible, because you cannot control the flow of events in times of war. But I think so far there’s been a strong effort to keep it contained within Syria,” he told NOW. “We’ve seen Hezbollah and other Lebanese [opposition] parties resist doing anything that could put [them] in a war situation inside Lebanon.”

This dynamic, said Kahwaji, is reinforced by the control exerted by each side’s regional backers – Syria and Iran, in Hezbollah’s case, and Gulf monarchies in the opposition’s. “With Lebanese Sunnis trying to lend a hand [by passing] on supplies to the rebels, and Hezbollah working for the regime, it might appear as if it is the Lebanese fighting a war by proxy in Syria. But the truth is both the Sunni parties and Hezbollah are themselves proxies to regional powers, which are using Lebanese tools to fight their proxy war in Syria.”

Syrian opposition activist Maher al-Esber concurred, telling NOW that Lebanese Sunnis and the FSA in general had “no interest in fighting Hezbollah in Lebanon.” Esber also cast doubt on the authenticity of last week’s call for Lebanese Sunnis to fight Hezbollah, saying the group issuing the statement was not authorized to speak on behalf of the FSA.

Others argue the likely terrible consequences of an all-out Sunni-Shiite war in Lebanon suffice to dissuade parties from launching one. “The fact that Syrian refugees in Lebanon have been spread out throughout the country – among Shiite populations in the south and in Dahiyeh, in the [mainly Druze-populated] Shouf, in [largely Christian] Mount Lebanon, and in the [mostly Sunni] north – tells you that a Sunni-Shiite armed fight in Lebanon would be devastating for all sides, and this acts as a preventative factor against such a sectarian outbreak,” said Dr. Imad Salamey, professor of political science at the Lebanese American University.

Salamey added that sectarian incitement would ultimately be of limited efficacy in what he argues is still principally a political, not religious conflict. “The struggle in Syria remains primarily one between a ruling government with different sectarian composition – mostly Alawite but with different groups, including Sunnis – and an opposition that is cross-sectarian, even if most armed groups on the ground may have Sunni religious affiliation. The struggle has not gone fully sectarian, and this to a large extent helps prevent a sectarian spillover into Lebanon.”

Nevertheless, Salamey believes, “the longer this conflict goes on, the more sectarian polarization it will entail. Therefore […] the Syrian crisis has serious potential to spill over into Lebanon.”

Kahwaji, too, cautioned that sectarianism could yet overcome the factors that have thus far insulated most of Lebanon from the carnage raging next door. “Sectarian wars can easily be started. The historical differences and cracks within the region are still very much there,” he told NOW.

“It would not take much effort to reignite these old flames.”

Yara Chehayed contributed reporting.