Wednesday, May 29, 2013

In Dahiyeh, fear breeds loathing

[Originally posted at NOW]

Driving through the gridlocked traffic of Beirut’s southern suburbs Tuesday afternoon, two days after a pair of 107mm Grad rockets struck the neighborhood wounding four Syrian workers, not much looked different except perhaps an increase in the number of “martyr” posters. Despite reports of local Hezbollah militants deploying on street corners and setting up checkpoints following the attacks, NOW saw no evidence during a comprehensive tour of the so-called Dahiyeh (“suburb”) – the sole gunman in sight was a plain-clothed security guard outside the Bahman Hospital in Haret Hreik.

However, there was one novel phenomenon detectable in the minds of Dahiyeh residents – suspicion of, and even bigotry against Syrians.

At a red traffic light in Ghobeiry, a young boy around the age of 10 approached the driver’s window trying to sell some goods. “Where are you from?” asked NOW’s guide, Hussein, a forty-something former Amal militant now employed at the Council for the South. “Syria,” replied the boy. “F*** your sister!” grunted Hussein, turning away in disgust.

“They’re dirty people,” he explained as we drove off. “If I could, I would run them all over with my car.”

Dislike for Syrians – which has been on the rise in Dahiyeh ever since the armed conflict began next door – appears to have reached new levels after Sunday’s rockets, widely believed to have been launched by Syrian rebel brigades. According to civil society activist and Dahiyeh resident Lokman Slim, Syrians were subject to various forms of harassment in the hours following the attacks.

“Youngsters took to the streets with their walkie-talkies and accosted those suspected to be Syrian. They checked their phones, checked their IDs, and asked them where they were living,” Slim told NOW.

Hussein said much the same, adding that Hezbollah was keeping a very close watch on Dahiyeh’s Syrian residents, even asking them if they were for or against the Assad regime.

In part, these measures are being undertaken out of fear. Syrian rebel brigades have already launched multiple rocket strikes on pro-Hezbollah areas in the northeastern Beqaa Valley, one of which killed a teenage girl on Monday. The rebels have also repeatedly threatened to extend these strikes to Dahiyeh.

“People support these security measures, because if we’re targeted again, we might die,” said Hussein. “Syrians here are going in and out of Syria all the time. You never know who could be with the opposition.”

Hussein insisted that locals were not spooked by Sunday’s attacks, though he admitted there were quiet worries of something more major to come.

“Two rockets is not a big deal for us, we survived much worse from the Israelis. The feeling in the area is no different today than it was before the rockets. But, of course, if something bigger happens, like car bombs or gunmen in the streets, that’s another matter.”

Security concerns aside, the mounting ill-will against Syrians has evidently taken on a sectarian dimension as well.

“Alawite Syrians are obviously fine. It’s only the Sunnis we have a problem with,” said Abbas, a young resident whose house was just one block from where one of the rockets fell.

This sectarianism, in turn, appears to be fuelled by recent battles in the Syrian town of Qusayr, where Hezbollah has been in open conflict with Syrian rebels, the latter of whom are largely seen in Dahiyeh as Sunni extremists. Indeed, the Qusayr fighting seems to be at the forefront of the community’s attention, dominating café chatter and online discourse. As we drove through Dahiyeh, passing the countless “martyr” photos plastered on lampposts and balconies, Hussein would note each one that was killed in Qusayr.

“There’s no such thing as the Syrian ‘revolutionaries,’ they’re terrorists,” he told NOW. “They have problems in their brains. It’s not Islam, what they think. They behead people with no political agenda, killing and terrorism are their only goals. The fighter who eats the heart of a dead person is not a revolutionary, in Islam we cannot touch the body of a dead person. It’s haram [forbidden].”

The conversation turned distinctly theological when Hussein defended Hezbollah’s fighting in Qusayr.

“A big majority of Shiites think what Hezbollah is doing is a religious duty. It prepares the return of the Mahdi and the signs of his return, and this is the core of Hezbollah’s ideology. So the jihad in Qusayr is a duty.”

Such rhetoric is perhaps illustrative of what Slim described as Hezbollah’s steering of Syria-related events to its own political advantage.

“[The Sunday attacks] led people in Dahiyeh to swing between fear, questioning, and seeking a protector. And, of course, the protector can’t be any other entity but Hezbollah. But [hostility toward Syrians] is not only caused by the shelling of Dahiyeh, it’s caused by [Hezbollah’s] propaganda machine which is focusing on the wrong deeds of some FSA elements.”

In the longer run, when the Syrian war is over, Slim believes, the Shiite community may come to resent the relatively high death toll incurred as a result of the Qusayr fighting. “People are mourning the boys,” he said.

Hussein, indeed, lamented the “mistakes” he said were made by the Party on the military front.

“The fighters being sent to Qusayr are too young, they’re too ill-prepared. The Syrians have dug trenches and are using them well, sniping the Hezbollah fighters first in the legs and then in the head.”

“Hezbollah sent them to war as if it was just a football game.”

Some of the above names have been changed at the interviewees’ requests.

Racha El-Amin and Yara Chehayed contributed reporting.

Speaking on BBC World Service: 'Can supplying weapons [in Syria] lead to peace?'

I spoke on the BBC World Service's 'World Have Your Say' programme last night, on the topic: 'Can supplying weapons [in Syria] lead to peace?' You can listen here (I come on at around 40:40). 

Friday, May 24, 2013

Omar Bakri: Woolwich killer was my student

[Originally posted at NOW]

Tripoli-based Salafist cleric Sheikh Omar Bakri alleged in an interview with NOW on Friday that one of the suspected murderers of a British soldier in Woolwich, London, on Wednesday was a student of his during his time as leader of the now-banned British Islamist party, Al-Muhajiroun.

“I came across [28-year-old Michael Adebolajo] between 2003 and 2004. He used to come and study in [Al-Muhajiroun’s] open circles and seminars, and participate in demonstrations. He was not a member of Al-Muhajiroun but he used to come to our public events,” Bakri told NOW.

Bakri described the British-born convert from Christianity to Islam as a mild-mannered person who did not appear inclined to violence.

“He used to be very quiet, very shy. He used to ask about Islam, about how to pray, how to fast, and he used to ask about the Muslim umma in general. He was not really coming for the sake of carrying out operations, I was shocked when I saw that footage.”

Despite Adebolajo’s affiliation with Al-Muhajiroun – banned by the British government in 2010 for alleged involvement in terrorism – Bakri believes he was acting in an individual capacity, rather than under orders from the group’s members.

“Al-Muhajiroun had schools, colleges, a shari’a court, it was an association, not really a school to train people to fight. And I dissolved it in March 2004. If [violence] is really what I teach people, I have 2,000 Muslims there, so are you saying 2,000 students around the UK are all going to become like Michael? It seems to me he believed in an individual form of Jihad, he was responsible for his own actions and in that footage he stated clearly why he carried out that attack. It was in response to the British foreign policies in Afghanistan and Iraq, and he made it clear, he was so firm, so courageous.”

“He did not run away from the scene, he stood firm with the blood of that British soldier on his hands, believing he attacked a British soldier who is not a civilian, believing he did it in reaction to what that soldier is involved himself in Afghanistan and Iraq as a part of the Cobra special British forces.”

Bakri added that Adebolajo should not be prosecuted for the killing, which he sees as legitimate.

“I do not condemn what he did. I believe what he did has an Islamic justification, though I maybe [would] not carry [it out] that myself, but people have different opinions, different interpretations.”

Adebolajo was arrested along with 22-year-old Michael Adebowale on suspicion of murdering British soldier Lee Rigby in a dramatic, broad-daylight knife attack.

Bakri, of Syrian birth, was a prominent Islamist cleric in London in the 1990s and early 2000s before being banned from the United Kingdom in 2005, after which he moved to Lebanon.

Young Hezbollah critic banished from village

[Originally posted at NOW]

Arson attack and death threats force south Lebanon girl into hiding.

Note posted on Marwa Olleik's Nabatieh home reads "Don't think of returning" (Sent to NOW by Olleik)

In the Ashrafieh apartment currently serving as her unofficial safe house, Marwa Olleik talks with a mix of pain and defiance as she recalls the series of events that forced her to flee her lifelong home on Wednesday. With her nose piercing, tattooed forearm, and unveiled hair, the 20 year-old journalism student doesn’t exactly fit the stereotype of the south Lebanese village girl. Yet it isn’t her looks, but her opinions – in particular, her support for the Syrian uprising and criticism of local hero Hezbollah’s interventions against it – that have brought the powerful wrath of her community upon her.

“From the very first day the Syrian revolution began, I was with it,” she tells NOW. “I’m with any people that choose to revolt to demand their freedom. I didn’t care about the politics, or the history, my thought was always: If the people want to change the regime, I’m with them. If tomorrow they want to revolt against the Free Syrian Army, I’ll be with them too. So for months I’ve been writing messages like these, supporting the revolution, on Facebook.”

At first, Olleik says nobody in Yahmur, her village situated about 10km south of Nabatieh, minded her online commentary. But as Hezbollah’s military assistance to the Assad regime grew more apparent, her criticism sharpened, and she began to receive intimidating messages from fake accounts.

“People would tell me I was shaming the honor of the village, and of the Shiites, and they would use terrible insults against me, calling me the whore of Sheikh [Adnan] al-Arour and Ahmad al-Assir, and much worse,” she says. But the turning point came last Sunday, when Hezbollah began its widely-publicized attack on the Syrian town of Qusayr.

“When Hezbollah went into Qusayr, I immediately started posting comments and photos, asking what they were going there for, especially since in Nabatieh every day I would see two or three bodies returning. People told me I was insulting Sayyida Zeinab [the granddaughter of the Prophet, highly revered in Shiite Islam]. So on Monday I wrote a post saying that insulting Sayyida Zeinab a thousand times is more merciful than killing one Syrian child.”

It seems to have been that comment in particular that brought the local community’s anger to a boiling point. As the online abuse poured in, her father – himself a more-or-less orthodox Hezbollah partisan – allegedly began to receive phone calls from local party affiliates, urging him to make his daughter publicly retract her comments. For the sake of her father’s safety and reputation, Olleik says she did post an apology. However, by then the point of no return had already been crossed.

En route to university in Beirut the following morning, Olleik received a phone call from her distressed mother, who had been staying at the family’s second house in Nabatieh. “She told me she found a sign stuck to the wall outside the house, saying ‘Don’t think of returning [to Yahmur].’” Ignoring the warning, her mother had driven to their Yahmur home to find that the contents of the front porch had been set ablaze overnight.

On Thursday morning, NOW paid a visit to Yahmur, a picturesque village in the fertile plains at the feet of the crusader-era Shqeef Castle, which also happens to be a mere 5km from the Israeli border. Like almost all villages in the south, the flags flying on its lampposts alternate between those of Hezbollah and the Amal Movement. A large billboard bearing the faces of Iranian Grand Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei greets visitors at the Husseiniyah [Shiite worship place] in the village center. The few women walking around either donned the hijab or the more conservative chador.

The Olleik home – a traditional single-story villa of off-white stone with a spacious garden – was empty when NOW arrived, but the damage from Tuesday’s arson attack was plainly visible. A tablecloth and accompanying chairs on the patio were damaged and charred black from what had clearly been a small fire.

Local residents at the grocery store across the street had mixed views of the overall episode. “It’s nothing, it’s just a dispute between youths,” insisted one, who did not give his name. “The guys who started the fire are known troublemakers; they smoke arguileh and drink juice all day. In my personal opinion, Marwa should just come back.”

Another resident, who claimed to be a cousin of Olleik’s, butted in to interrupt. “No. She can’t. It’s forbidden. She insulted Sayyida Zeinab, there’s no way we can allow this.”

A third man appeared to agree. Asked how many people lived in Yahmur, he replied, “Five thousand. Actually, 4,999 now.” The others snickered.

“Everything is over in any case,” said the first man. “A Hezbollah man met with her parents and resolved the issue.” He did not elaborate.

Olleik, however, had already described this encounter to NOW. “The rabit [local Hezbollah official] came to our house and told my mother I can’t go back and I have to immediately publish an apology, although I already had done so. He said that this time they burnt the porch, but next time they’d burn the whole house.”

“And if one Hezbollah fighter is martyred from Yahmur, he said they’d kill me.” When asked for comment, Hezbollah press spokesman Ibrahim Mousawi told NOW he had not heard anything about the incident.

A nagging question for Olleik is why the reaction to her comments became suddenly so hostile this week, when for months she had railed against the party with no repercussions. She speculates it’s due to the widespread condemnation the party has faced since launching its Qusayr offensive.

“Hezbollah is losing support even from Shiites because of Syria, so they want to silence criticism. For example, the other day a woman came to my mother, crying and cursing the party because her son had just been sent to fight in Syria. At the recent funerals for fighters, too, many of the mothers have been angry for what Hezbollah has done.”

There also remains the question of what Olleik will now do. Her family, she says, has no intention of taking legal action against the assailants, believing it to be a lost cause. Her cousin Rami, who accompanied her during NOW’s interview (and who is himself an outspoken critic of Hezbollah, despite formerly being a party member – a transformation he details in his recent book, ‘The Bees Road') said, “The situation is still boiling for now, but she should go back - maybe even this weekend.”

Olleik, however, seems to have other ideas.

“There’s no going back to Nabatieh for me. My reputation is ruined, I would have no life. Maybe I’ll live here in Beirut by myself, or my parents will move here. I don’t know.”

“But returning to Nabatieh is not an option.”

Yara Chehayed contributed reporting.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Fresh anti-Hezbollah protests in Martyrs Square

[Originally posted at NOW]

Lebanese and Syrian demonstrators gather under the symbolic Martyrs Statue to protest Hezbollah's military involvement in Syria (NOW/Alex Rowell)

Downtown Beirut’s symbolic Martyrs Square was once again the scene of Syria-related protest Tuesday evening, as around 50 Lebanese and Syrian demonstrators gathered to condemn Hezbollah’s military intervention in the Syrian conflict.

Carrying ‘Free Syria’ flags and placards expressing solidarity with Qusayr, the rebel-held Syrian town (currently facing a major assault from Hezbollah units in conjunction with regime forces), the demonstrators chanted “curse your soul, Hafez [al-Assad]” and “come on, step down Bashar/Hezbollah.” Fliers also played on the Party of God’s insignia, changing the word “Hezbollah” to “hurriyah,” or “freedom.”

Unlike similar demonstrations that broke out at Martyrs Square in the earlier stages of the Syrian uprising, there was no counter-protest from supporters of Assad and Hezbollah. “They’re probably busy fighting in Syria,” quipped Abdallah Haddad, a financial consultant who told NOW he had showed up to protest what he saw as Hezbollah’s dragging Lebanon into the conflict next door.

“We’ve come here to condemn Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria and in Damascus, but especially in Qusayr,” said Taher, a Lebanese demonstrator who preferred not to disclose his surname. “We would like our prime minister and president to take a clear stance against this intervention,” he told NOW.

While Haddad, Taher, and many other attendees were Lebanese, it was in fact Syrians who made up the majority of protestors – a pleasant surprise, said organizers, given the fears Syrians often have of the Lebanese authorities.

“I’m Syrian,” said protestor Muayyad al-Bunni. “We felt we should do something because we heard that Hezbollah is now killing our brothers in Syria. We are in Lebanon, Hezbollah’s country, so we decided to make our voices heard.”

Like everyone else, al-Bunni told NOW it was the Qusayr clashes in particular that sparked the outrage that fuelled the protest.

“Hezbollah has been helping the regime since the beginning of the revolution but now it’s doing so with its soldiers, and that’s something really shocking.”

The event was organized on Facebook by a mix of students and professionals of diverse political and religious backgrounds, according to Karim, an organizer who preferred not to disclose his surname due to fears of repercussions from his predominantly pro-Amal neighbors. Karim added that attendance would likely have been much higher had the event’s Facebook page not been hacked earlier in the day, leading hundreds of pledged attendees to believe it had been cancelled. Who did he think hacked the page, NOW asked? “Shabbiha,” he replied, half-jokingly using the catch-all term for Assad supporters.

“You cannot be with a dictator against his people,” Karim replied when asked why he decided to organize the protest. “We wanted to denounce Hezbollah’s one-sided military intervention in Syria and say, as Lebanese, that we do not accept what they are doing and this does not represent us. This bypasses not only our constitution but our sense of liberty, and everything that Lebanon is supposed to stand for.”

NOW asked why organizers had chosen this particular moment to protest, when Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria had been an open secret for some time. “I admit it is late, it should have been done earlier,” said Karim. “But it turned out to be the peak now because they were almost reaching Qusayr and we thought if we didn’t speak out now – I mean, on a personal level, if I did not speak out today, I would have felt guilty about it if the Syrian revolution failed. So it’s a stand we should take first of all from an ethical perspective and second as a political position.”

Karim further argued that it was in Lebanon’s self-interest to support the Syrian revolution, given the historic influence wielded by Damascus in Lebanese affairs.

“The Lebanese and Syrian people are in this together. Their freedom is our freedom.”

Israel: Against Hezbollah in Lebanon, with them in Syria

[Originally posted at NOW]

Terrorism can be so complicated sometimes.

When it comes to Syria, the number one question on the Israeli hawk’s mind today, anxiously debated on the opinion pages of establishment papers, goes something like this: Everybody knows that both the Free Syrian Army rebels and their Hezbollah antagonists are abominable terrorists, the very antithesis of civilization as we understand it. But what is a respectable non-terrorist actor like Israel to do when these two groups of terrorists are battling one another on their doorstep? Are all Muslims carrying guns equally considered terrorists, or are there varying degrees of terrorism to be assessed?

The conclusion, judging by an already substantial and daily-growing body of evidence, appears to be the latter, with the Syrian opposition just pipping the Party of God to the pinnacle of the terrorist pyramid. Take, for instance, Friday’s article in the London Times, "Islamist fears drive Israel to support Assad survival," wherein “senior Israeli intelligence officials” presented the following argument for the Baath regime’s survival: “Better the devil we know than the demons we can only imagine if Syria falls into chaos, and the extremists from across the Arab world gain a foothold there.” The best-case scenario, the officials further opined, was (in Haaretzsummary) “a weakened but stable Syria under Assad.”

That report prompted a carefully-worded half-denial from Netanyahu, who asserted it did “not represent the Israeli government’s position,” but only on the technical grounds that Israel did not in fact have a position on who should govern Syria – hardly an endorsement of the opposition, and indeed an implied suggestion that Assad – along with his Lebanese Islamist allies - were no less preferable candidates than any of the alternatives.

Not that this was the only conciliatory signal Tel Aviv has sent in Assad’s direction of late. Following the most recent air strike on an alleged Hezbollah weapons convoy near Damascus at the start of this month, Israeli officials rushed to assure Assad they meant no harm to his regime per se. They were just there to prevent terror – if Assad chose to SCUD-missile, cluster-bomb, and air-strike Syrian civilians, well, that was another matter entirely.

Nor does the de facto support for Assad end with merely enabling his war crimes to continue. Last month, Netanyahu announced Israel reserved the right to physically obstruct the opposition’s armed struggle against the dictatorship by blocking weapons transfers to rebel brigades.

Incompatible as all this may seem with Assad and Hezbollah’s bellowings about confronting the grand Zionist conspiracy, Tel Aviv’s under-the-table camaraderie with Damascus has long been the Middle East’s worst-kept secret. An excellent explanation of this decades-long relationship appeared recently in Foreign Affairs under the candid title, ‘Israel’s Man in Damascus: Why Jerusalem [sic] Doesn’t Want the Assad Regime to Fall.’ The author, former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy, runs down the key bullet points: 40 years of calm on the border, fears of Islamism among the opposition, and enduring hopes for a peace treaty that has been on the table since the 1990s. The article concluded that “[Israel] ultimately has little interest in actively hastening the fall of Bashar al-Assad.”

In other words, Israel watches – presumably with some satisfaction – as a kind of umpire in the sky, as Assad and his proxy militias (foremost among them Hezbollah) rain rockets upon rebel “terrorists” just kilometers from Lebanese territory, only stepping in to interrupt the fun when those rockets venture west of the border. So long as Hezbollah plays by the rules – keeping the guns pointed east rather than south – they’re doing more good than harm in Israel’s eyes, and so they can even be given indirect nudges of assistance. It’s tough to say which is the greater of the ironies – that Israel is making common cause of a kind with the chief proxies of its supposed arch-enemy Iran, or that so many ground troops of the ‘Islamic Resistance’ are giving their lives to facilitate precisely the Zionist “project” they set out to thwart.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Qusayr resisting all-out attack

[Originally posted at NOW]

The streets of the western Syrian town of Al-Qusayr were enveloped in clouds of grey cement powder on Sunday as President Bashar al-Assad's air and ground forces, backed by Lebanese Hezbollah militiamen, commenced a long-awaited major assault on the lynchpin rebel-held town and its surrounding villages. Humanitarian observers including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, have warned that this may lead to massacres reminiscent of those in the coastal towns of al-Bayda and Banias earlier in the month.

At least 58 Qusayr residents were killed Sunday – many of them civilians – and over 600 wounded in continuous air and artillery strikes, according to local opposition spokesman Hadi al-Abdallah. He also claimed some 30 Hezbollah fighters had been killed by rebel forces. Syrian state TV reported 100 opposition militants dead, with no mention of regime casualties. NOW was unable to reach the Hezbollah press office for confirmation of the Party's losses.

Regime fighter jets continued to pound residential quarters of the town center Monday, according to Al-Abdallah, as contradictory reports emerged regarding the territorial gains made by Assad loyalists. While regime soldiers claimed Sunday to have conquered the central town square, raising the Syrian flag over the municipality building, numerous opposition sources asserted that no territory had been lost by the rebels whatsoever.

"It's not true what the regime is claiming," said Qusayr-based activist, Ahmad al-Qusayr. "They're saying this to raise the morale of the fighters, because the rebels are giving them a beating."

Indeed, Al-Qusayr was confident that the rebels could and would withstand the attack. "The Free Syrian Army is still there on every corner and they have increased their defenses to face any invasion. They will fight until the last drop of blood," he told NOW.

Though such claims are impossible to verify, there is evidence that rebels have put up stiff resistance thus far. A video purportedly filmed Sunday night shows a number of destroyed regime tanks and the corpse of an apparent Hezbollah fighter – one of a number of similar videos uploaded by the opposition in recent days.

Indeed, the past few weeks have seen a significant escalation in the comparatively low-intensity war of attrition that has been underway in Qusayr since it fell to rebel brigades in February 2012. Meeting with Lebanese allies one month ago, Assad reportedly described the fighting in Qusayr as the "main battle" in all of Syria, one that must be won "at any cost." On 11 May, regime sources said they warned civilians to leave the town (a claim denied by the opposition) as an attack was imminent, and on 13 May, Abdallah reported the arrival of 30 regime tanks in the Qusayr countryside, sparking "very violent battles." The following day, AFP reported the fall of three rebel-held villages to loyal Assad forces – Dameina al-Gharbiyah, Eish al-Warwar and Haidariyeh – situated between Qusayr town and the allied neighborhoods of Homs, with sights set next on the rebels' captured military base at al-Dabaa.

The town and its surroundings are deemed strategic for two key reasons. First, lying just 10km from the Lebanese border, it acts as the major buffer between the Hezbollah-controlled northeast Beqaa Valley and the rebel-held areas of Homs. In the words of Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman, "If the army manages to take control of Al-Qusayr, the whole province of Homs will fall."

Second, it flanks the main highway linking Damascus to the coastal Alawite heartland north of Lebanon, the principal bastion of support for the regime to which some analysts believe Assad may flee in the event that Damascus falls to the rebels.

Given this strategic importance, the town has also been a magnet for Lebanese militants opposed to the regime. As fighting intensified last month, prominent Salafist clerics Ahmad al-Assir and Salem al-Rafei issued calls for "jihad" against Assad loyalists in Qusayr, with several hundred reportedly signing on to assist their allies across the border. Yet long before these calls, anti-Assad Lebanese were known to be fighting in Qusayr. NOW met and interviewed one last October who had battled regime and Hezbollah forces there as early as May 2012.

As the indiscriminate loyalist assault continues, however, the stakes are not only strategic but humanitarian, according to local opposition sources.

"There are 40,000 civilians in the Qusayr town," said Muhammad Radwan Raad, a Homs-based activist. "They have no water, no electricity, and no safe passage to escape. Already, some families have been bombarded while trying to flee. We don't know what to do with them," he told NOW.

"If the situation continues as it is, there will be no Qusayr in the future."

Yara Chehayed contributed reporting.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Cabinet formation takes back seat

[Originally posted at NOW]

Six weeks on from his appointment, Lebanon’s Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam is still yet to form a cabinet, with his efforts to do so continuing to stumble into seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Last weekend appeared to be the closest Salam had yet come, as speculation mounted regarding the imminent formation of a so-called “fait accompli” cabinet of 14-members. That option, however, was decisively buried by warnings from Hezbollah to Salam that such a cabinet would constitute “an uncalculated adventure […] a dangerous game [whose] on-the-ground consequences will be more than you can handle” – remarks by MP Hassan Fadlallah interpreted in some circles as a direct threat of violence reminiscent of the May 2008 clashes – and Salam was thus sent back to square one.

The cabinet formation question was then further overshadowed this week by significant turns of events on the electoral law front, with the so-called ‘Orthodox Law’ favored by the March 8 coalition challenged by a new ‘hybrid’ proposal from rivals in the Future Movement, the Lebanese Forces and Progressive Socialist Party (PSP). The latter in turn ran into opposition, including from March 14’s Kataeb, sending the situation into further disarray, the resolution of which is widely seen as a pre-requisite for a cabinet formation.

“The cabinet is a postponed issue, the highlight now is on the electoral law,” said Antoine Haddad, secretary-general of the Democratic Renewal (Tajaddod) Movement. “I don’t think any decisive move will be taken before the outcome of the electoral law is clear,” he told NOW.

With the 14-member “fait accompli” cabinet scrapped, the proposal currently on the table is one comprising 24 ministers, trisected into eight representatives of March 14, eight of March 8, and eight ostensible “centrists” appointed by President Michel Suleiman, PM-designate Salam and the PSP.

However, this too has been categorically rejected by Hezbollah, which insists on securing a veto-enabling ‘blocking third’ in any cabinet – a demand deemed unacceptable by March 14, which calls for a politically neutral solution.

“Hezbollah wants the blocking third so they can rule the country without anyone asking them about their activity in Syria,” said Future MP Ahmad Fatfat. “This is not acceptable for us. We consider that this cabinet should be tasked only with overseeing elections and should stay away from political clashes,” he told NOW.

In an apparent attempt to bridge this gap, Parliament Speaker and leader of the March 8-aligned Amal party Nabih Berri declared Tuesday he would approve the 8-8-8 formula on the condition that a minister from his party was appointed among the “centrists.” Interpreting this as a means of delivering March 8 a de facto ‘blocking third,’ Salam declined the proposal, according to Haddad.

“Salam knows that Nabih Berri is not a centrist. So he told him, ‘OK, if you are a centrist, let’s widen the quota of the centrists.’ Berri tried to play with the terminology, and he got his answer,” Haddad told NOW.

Despite this, a PSP insider, who spoke to NOW on condition of anonymity, was confident that some variant of the 8-8-8 formula would succeed sooner or later.

“It’s the only realistic option. Berri will find a way of tweaking it so that everyone ends up happy. He will keep suggesting names [of centrists] to Salam until they find one that’s acceptable.”

Unless and until that happens, Salam is now said to be preparing for the possibility of things taking longer than he initially expected.

“After the open threats in the press close to Hezbollah warning [Salam] against [the 14-member cabinet] over the weekend, Salam paid a visit to Berri and said he’s no longer in a hurry,” Haddad told NOW, referring to an article in Al-Akhbar in which editor-in-chief Ibrahim al-Amin wrote Salam’s conduct was “invit[ing]” Hezbollah “to mutiny as they did on 7 May 2008.”

“Anyway, Salam has clearly stated from the beginning his main mission is to have elections. So if the date and fate of the elections is still unclear after Saturday [the deadline for passing a new electoral law,] then this will not facilitate his mission. If the picture is less clear than before after Saturday, that would mean the formation of the government is as unclear.”

Would this possibly entail Salam’s resignation? Though the PM-designate has often stated his willingness to step down if delays in cabinet formation become excessive, Haddad thinks that moment has not yet arrived.

“I don’t think he will resign and I wouldn’t advise him to. He’s still got time. Remember [former Prime Minister Najib] Miqati took five months to form his cabinet, and that was within a homogeneous coalition. So asking Salam to put a government on the table in under two months is unfair.”

The PSP insider, too, dismissed the idea of Salam resigning, suggesting the PM-designate still has one major hand he can play as a last resort.

“Constitutionally, he has the option of declaring an 8-8-8 cabinet with or without March 8’s consent. And I think President Suleiman would sign it. That would give the cabinet 40 days to prepare a ministerial statement before parliament voted on it. And if parliament’s term is not extended on Saturday, that means we could have elections after all.”

In spite of Hezbollah’s threats, the source told NOW he didn’t think such a step would provoke war. “It’s definitely dangerous. But if it’s just going to be an elections cabinet, only in place for a month or two, then it should be OK. Nobody will go to war over such a short-term government.”

Yara Chehayed contributed reporting.

Friday, May 10, 2013

A chance for Zaatari's children

[Originally posted at NOW]

This is the second in a two-part series based on NOW’s visit to Jordan’s Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees on May 5, 2013. Read the first article, ‘Zaatari’s mukhabarrat wars,’ here.

Three refugee children from Nawa, near Daraa, in Zaatari camp (NOW/Alex Rowell)

ZAATARI CAMP, Jordan – Just meters behind the Jordanian military checkpoint that forms the entrance to the world’s largest Syrian refugee camp, small, expressionless children wait to pounce on new arrivals, offering to help with luggage and, failing that, simply begging for money.

“Just one dinar,” said Abd al-Rahman, a bony 12 year-old from Homs, tugging at NOW’s forearm. “My father was killed in Syria. I have to work to feed my mother and brothers.”

Walk further down the main road, which doubles as a bustling shopping boulevard, and the children are everywhere – pushing wheelbarrows, carrying cardboard boxes on their shoulders, and selling anything from phone cards to foreign currency to live chickens.

It was a sizzling hot afternoon in the rocky plains of Jordan’s northern desert, and as NOW ventured deeper into the camp, the irradiating sunlight bounced off the tarmac, compounding the blinding effect of the dust kicked up by the blasting winds. “I’m so thirsty. I need water,” said Abd al-Rahman, patting his lips, who did not leave NOW’s side until a dinar ($1.40 USD) was handed over.

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), as of last month some 57% of registered Zaatari refugees were under 18. That amounts to over 90,000 children in the camp, many without one or both parents and condemned, for the most part, to lives of manual labor.

As such, some aid organizations are trying to create alternatives for Zaatari’s youth and prepare them for an eventual post-camp future. At present, there are two schools in the camp offering free, basic education for all (the “Bahrain School” and the imaginatively-titled “School No. 2”). But Mohammed Hadid, the Jordanian project coordinator of the Finnish government-funded Finn Church Aid (FCA) NGO, seeks to provide much more.

In his portable cabin office in a fenced-off gravel plot on the west side of the camp, Hadid explains the various types of training his organization has offered refugees since opening in December 2012.

“First of all, there is literacy training. For now this is limited to Arabic, but we hope in the coming weeks to add English too. Second is vocational skills – we asked the young men and women what they wanted to be trained in, and we will start accordingly. The men mostly chose electrician training, and the women chose sewing. Third, we provide physical exercises – circus acrobatics, gymnastics and juggling for now, with football and others in the next few months,” he told NOW.

The courses are open for all refugees between the ages of 15 and 24, and run five days a week. So far, Hadid says he’s attracted around 150 regular attendees, and though the number is growing, he faces a number of social and cultural challenges in boosting enrollment.

“It’s a very sensitive age bracket,” he told NOW. “For men, they feel a pressure to work and earn money for their families. As for women, this is seen as the time to get married, so many are reluctant to leave the house for fear of unwanted male attention.”

Accordingly, Hadid is often compelled to personally meet families in order to win their trust. “We have no choice but to go tent to tent, explaining what it is we do and trying to convince parents that this is in the best interests of the children.” In keeping with the general cultural conservatism of the refugee population, all courses are gender-segregated.

Those who do show up speak highly of the experience. 18-year-old Muhammad Rublan, from Daraa, currently takes the gymnastics course. “I love it, it’s bringing a real positive energy,” he told NOW. “In Syria, we never heard of this type of sport.”

The exercise also provides a welcome relief from the hardship of camp life. “In Zaatari we have no jobs, we have no activities to do during the day. This sport is a stress relief that keeps us active.”

As an added benefit for camp residents, FCA hires staff exclusively from the refugee population. Instructors are paid 10JD ($14) per five-hour working day, while two security guards and a cleaner get an hourly rate of 1.5JD ($2.10 USD) – no fortune, but certainly enough to make a difference when compared to the 2-4JD ($2-6 USD) that, depending on size, goes to whole families per day in cash assistance from UNHCR.

One such employee is Anwar Abu Jaysh, a Daraa refugee in his mid-twenties, who has worked for FCA as an Arabic-English translator for a month.

“I liked the idea very much when I heard about it,” said Abu Jaysh in English – a language he learned during childhood years spent in the United Arab Emirates. “It means I’m able to help other refugees while also earning money for myself.”

Abu Jaysh has even mulled the idea of starting his own organization one day. “Some of the very young children are often behaving badly. When there’s a demonstration, for example, you’ll see kids as young as four or five throwing rocks at people. I would like to make a project for these children too.”

Yet, for the dozen young boys gathering by the entrance to the FCA grounds as we speak, such mischief seems far from the mind. “They’re about to start one of the physical circuits,” explains Hadid. With a gesture to a security guard, the gate opens and they sprint noisily toward a large activity tent, where an instructor greets them atop a unicycle. However grueling the rest of their day may be, for this moment, at least, they look happy.

Yara Chehayed contributed reporting from Beirut.

BBC peddles the Assad line

[Originally posted at NOW]

As much as people like As’ad AbuKhalil want (and need) to believe that “Western media” are leagued in a barely-concealed conspiracy to indoctrinate the masses with anti-Assad propaganda, to any neutral observer it’s become increasingly apparent that the “line,” to the extent that there ever was one, is drifting markedly in the opposite direction.

Today’s diatribe in the BBC is a sterling example. Paul Danahar is a journalist I have often read and admired. During Israel’s most recent assault on Gaza last November, he was on the ground, courageously challenging the government line, exposing injustice and generally, as they say, ‘speaking truth to power.’

In his dispatch from Damascus today, however, Danahar has taken something of a reverse approach. When I read via Twitter yesterday of the “lots of meetings with lots of government officials in Damascus” he had lined up for the day, I trusted he would proceed with the hard-nosed skepticism expected of a BBC Middle East bureau chief. Instead, the muck flung at the wall by his companions seems largely to have stayed in place, and congealed.

The alarm bell first rings when he refers sarcastically to those who “[try] to boil it down to good versus evil: the FSA versus President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.” To imagine there is any moral difference between the rebels and the regime, you see, is deeply mistaken. “The situation in Syria,” he explains, is far too “complicated” for such infantile reductions.

So what’s really going on? Who’s truly responsible for the more than 70,000 killed? Well, “the regime has played its part,” he concedes. But no less dangerous; indeed the true cause of the enduring misery; is the “meddling” of Saudi Arabia and Qatar – two “sorely undemocratic states […] the cavalry from the very un-free Gulf […] not champions of democracy either at home or abroad.”

Of course! What fools we were to think that regime air strikes, SCUD missiles, cluster bombs, helicopters, tank units, death squads, and maybe now even chemical weapons were primarily to blame for the conflict being so damned “intractable.” All this time, it was bastard “Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia [which] hates Shiite Iran [and] is using the war in Syria to try and weaken it.”

There’s no need to mention, evidently, that Iran also “hates” Saudi Arabia, and has sent untold numbers of its own military personnel to Syria to optimize the regime’s killing machine. And why bring up Hezbollah, the foreign Islamist militia for whose military assistance Assad expressed his “great gratitude” today? Surely no reader needs to know that Russia, which maintains an entire naval base in the country, has supplied the regime with over a billion dollars’ worth of arms since the uprising began? And, really, who cares about the massacre of entire families, including toddlers, in al-Bayda and Baniyas last week when a Salafist once told some Christian women to cover their hair?

It’s one thing to quote the claims of a blood-drenched dictatorship that SCUD-missiles its own people, but quite another to actually believe them. Danahar’s extraordinary credulity in the face of one of the most reprehensible regimes in modern Arab history does the BBC’s readers an enormous disservice. Much more importantly, though, it insults the memories of that regime’s literally innumerable innocent victims, and shields the killers of those continuing to perish at this very moment.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Zaatari's mukhabarrat wars

[Originally posted at NOW]

Graffiti in the camp of the 'Free Syria' flag, with text reading, "Syria, don't worry, we're returning" (NOW/Alex Rowell)

This article is the first in a two-part series based on NOW’s visit to Jordan’s Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees on Sunday, May 5, 2013.

ZAATARI CAMP, Jordan – When the refugees climbed on top of the portable cabin office of the Jordan Health Aid Society and began stamping their feet, the frail walls shaking with each loud bang, the aid workers cooped inside did little but grin in sheepish embarrassment. “Everything’s fine,” one said to NOW with apparent confidence. “It’s always like this.”

Outside, however, the refugees themselves were decidedly less placid, drenched with sweat from the punishing heat and shouting incoherently at the window of the neighboring office, that of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA). “You’re a journalist? Take photos!” shouted one at NOW. Moments later, a man clinging onto the metal bars of the window saw NOW and yelled, “No photos, no photos!” Hands then pulled NOW back to the fringes of the hundred-strong-crowd, which continued to swarm the cabin for over two hours.

The riot was but one of the increasing number now taking place in the Syrian refugee camp every week, fuelled by the combination of chronic underfunding and ballooning overpopulation (built for 60,000 inhabitants, Zaatari now houses over 160,000, with hundreds of new arrivals every night). While Sunday’s demonstration was essentially peaceful, some in the past have turned violent – on April 19, ten Jordanian policemen were reportedly injured in clashes with 100 refugees, eight of whom were arrested and charged with “unlawful assembly.” Leaked video footage appears to show Jordanian security forces attacking refugee homes with projectiles and batons.

Pretexts for such demonstrations vary by the day, from the perceived underperformance of aid organizations to sheer street gossip – one in February, for example, was sparked by rumors of Jordanian police sexually harassing refugee women.

“It can be about anything,” said an aid worker who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic. “I could point to a random person in the street and shout, ‘Shabbih [Syrian regime agent]!’ and it could cause a riot.” For some, it seems, the protests are just something to do; a bit of excitement in an otherwise hard daily grind.

Yet refugees also told NOW of another source of the unrest – the infiltration of Syrian regime mukhabarrat [secret police], sent into the camp to keep tabs on Free Syrian Army (FSA) opponents, disrupt Jordanian efforts to maintain security, and foment disorder in general.

“The mukhabarrat have bases here in the camp,” said Ahmad, a refugee from Daraa in his mid-twenties. “Mostly they just collect information, but sometimes they attack people. There was an FSA general living in the camp, for example, who they assassinated.” They are also believed to have started some, though not all, of the tent fires that have claimed a handful of lives.

Not that refugees’ woes end there. “We actually have three kinds of mukhabarrat here,” said Ahmad. “There is the regime one, which we call shabbiha; there is the Jordanian one; and now we even have an FSA one too. We definitely didn’t need that,” he laughs bitterly.

Camp residents are visibly and apparently uniformly anti-regime – the “Free Syria” flag flies on every street, covers the walls of shops and is spray-painted on blank surfaces. Yet Ahmad told NOW the behavior of some “FSA mukhabarrat” has bred resentment.

“We are all with the revolution. But some [of the FSA] are stealing from other refugees, and turning corrupt. It’s as if they forgot about the revolution and are just interested in themselves. They became like the regime,” he told NOW.

Facilitating these practices is an improvised system of government within the camp that sees each street controlled by an unofficial leader, or za’eem. According to the aid worker quoted earlier, these leaders are notoriously corrupt – charging commission from residents of ‘their’ street who find employment, and buying influence with confiscated aid vouchers. Perhaps inevitably, there is a degree of overlap between these leaders and the competing mukhabarrat outfits.

Nor is the Jordanian gendarmerie particularly popular, as stories abound of its heavy-handed rule. “The other day, they accused a boy of stealing a caravan, and they beat him up,” said Ahmad. “Imagine – one boy stealing an entire caravan! Where would he hide it? Would he put it in his pocket?”

At the police station near the camp’s main entrance, the gendarmerie loiter by a couple of APCs, carrying meter-long batons. Though they were friendly with most refugees walking past, NOW witnessed one being manhandled into an office, the gendarme swearing at him and telling him to “shut up” when he spoke. He had been accused, NOW learned, of assaulting a Jordanian national.

In spite of these frictions, Ahmad said there was a degree of cooperation between the gendarmerie and the FSA. For example, when the FSA general was assassinated by the regime mukhabarrat, he says, the Jordanians caught the perpetrators and handed them over to the FSA. What, NOW asked, did the FSA do with them?

“Oh, they killed them.”

Interviewees’ names have been changed at their request, in the interests of their safety.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Law enforcement, or rough justice?

[Originally posted at NOW]

Seated under a large rectangular tent in the village of Wadi al-Nahleh on the northeastern outskirts of Tripoli Monday afternoon, surrounded by about a hundred men in suit jackets clutching prayer beads and small plastic coffee cups, the father of Muhammad Abdullah Seif spoke calmly but with iron conviction.

“We will wait for the court to hold the officers responsible to account,” he told NOW. “We don’t want to block more roads – I myself went yesterday to re-open them. But if the court does not act objectively, they can expect our reaction. We are a tribal community, I cannot control the neighborhood. Maybe we will choose to forgive the officers, or maybe we will take revenge.”

In between answering our questions, he rose to greet more well-wishers, coming to pay condolences for the loss of his 19-year-old son, killed Sunday along with fellow villager, 24-year-old Mahmoud Raya, in a shootout with the Lebanese authorities that also took the life of Internal Security Forces (ISF) officer Ali Saqr.

The clashes broke out after the ISF, along with the army, attempted to demolish some illegally-constructed buildings in the village. Wadi al-Nahleh is an impoverished shanty quarter on the hills below the Beddawi Palestinian refugee camp, inhabited by a few hundred Lebanese tribespeople. Its one tarmac road splinters into gravel alleyways, flanked by unpainted brick shacks with corrugated iron roofs held in place by old tires and planks of wood. Aside from a few small “Free Syria” flags, there is little sign of any political affiliation.

How exactly the gunfire began is disputed. The villagers’ version of events has it that the ISF “opened fire at children who were throwing stones,” at which point locals returned fire in self-defense. Sporting a bandaged arm and head, 38-year-old Mustafa Seif told NOW he was the victim of unprovoked aggression. “I came down to disperse the kids who were throwing stones at the police and army. I turned my back to the army, I trusted them, and they shot me. I now have bullet shards in my neck, back, and hand.”

Another resident identifying himself as a cousin of the deceased Muhammad Seif described a darker scene. “I have to tell you, this was a massacre. My cousin was injured and still the officer shot him again. As for Mahmoud Raya, he was shot from just thirty centimeters away, execution-style.” Such claims cannot be independently verified, though local children showed NOW photos on their phones of a corpse on the floor, a thick pool of blood seeping out of a mangled skull.

By contrast, an ISF spokesperson told NOW their fire only came “in response” to shots from the villagers, who turned violent when the ISF verbally ordered them to remove the illegal buildings.

The mayor of Wadi al-Nahleh, Majed Abd al-Rahman Ghamrawi, could not be reached for comment.

For decades, illegal construction has taken place in hundreds of locations all over Lebanon, and it is unclear why Wadi al-Nahleh was singled out for disciplinary treatment this time. Commenting on the clashes, former ISF head Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi suggested the construction was being driven by the influx of Syrian refugees to the area, though NOW saw no Syrians in the village and residents denied any were living among them.

An alternative explanation, cited in some reports, lays the blame on corruption within the ISF ranks. According to unnamed sources, ISF officials had been accepting bribes in return for allowing illegal buildings to stand. When the bribe money was no longer forthcoming, the ISF took punitive measures. This echoes accusations reported by NOW after a similar incident in Tyre in 2011, when two men were also killed by the ISF following attempts to remove illegal construction. On that occasion, residents told NOW that obtaining permission for such buildings by paying bribes to ISF members was commonplace.

None of the Wadi al-Nahleh residents explicitly made this allegation to NOW on Monday, though the late Muhammad Seif’s father said that for four years, disputes with the ISF over illegal construction had been “dealt with peacefully,” a possible allusion to bribery. An ISF spokesperson denied any corruption within the organization to NOW.

Former Tripoli MP for the Democratic Renewal (Tajaddod) Movement, Mosbah al-Ahdab, also finds the theory somewhat far-fetched.

“Unfortunately, there is bribery in this country, absolutely,” he told NOW. “Everything’s falling apart, and corruption is everywhere, to say the opposite would not sound credible. But I don’t think security forces would start shooting at civilians over this.”

In any case, as Seif’s father’s talk of “revenge” made clear, the matter is not yet settled, and more blood may spill before it is. The ISF spokesman told NOW the organization is currently conducting an internal investigation, after which it may resume its attempts to clear Wadi al-Nahleh of illegal buildings.

“We are waiting for the judicial decision. If there is a decision to remove more buildings, then we will do so.”

Yara Chehayed contributed reporting.