Thursday, August 29, 2013

Hezbollah-Hamas rift quietly widens further

[Originally posted at NOW]

There are, arguably, more important things going on in the Middle East at this moment, but no one who takes an interest in (or is simply entertained by) the fratricidal frictions between the region’s self-described “Islamic Resistance” movements brought on by the Syrian conflict can afford to ignore this ‘Letter to Hamas’ penned on Monday by Al-Akhbar’s editor-in-chief Ibrahim al-Amin.

It takes the conventional Stalinist form of the apparatchik sternly reprimanding a comrade for deviancy from ‘revolutionary’ doctrine. Hamas, warns Amin, is “straying from the path of resistance.” Specifically, in siding with the Syrian opposition against the Assad regime, the movement has “implicated” itself “in questionable activity against the Resistance in Lebanon.”

Well, we knew that much already. What’s new now is Amin’s explicit accusations of violence carried out by Hamas not just against the Syrian regime, but Hezbollah’s civilian constituency in Lebanon itself:

It is common knowledge […] that a Palestinian named Ahmad Taha was behind the rocket attack on Dahiyeh several months ago. He was assisted by many, among them a prominent member of Hamas in Rashidiya refugee camp in South Lebanon by the name of Aladdin Yassine. When Lebanese army intelligence asked for Hamas’ cooperation, they helped with Taha but refused to surrender Yassine, claiming that he had left the camp and his whereabouts are unknown.

It’s hard to imagine what Hamas is thinking – does it not understand the repercussions of dragging its feet in such a critical matter? Does it not know that its actions could cause a major rift with Hezbollah – the main target of the Dahiyeh rocket attack – and supporters of the Resistance, who have never hesitated in their commitment to the liberation of Palestine and all those forces that are struggling to that end?

For Amin to all but accuse of treachery the foremost Palestinian militant group strikes me as rather significant. Also interesting is what it reveals about his attitude to “resistance” in general. Apparently when Hamas – which fought a week-long war with Israel as recently as last November – goes to fight in Syria on behalf of a popular uprising, this marks its “decline as a resistance movement.” Yet, when Hezbollah – which hasn’t traded serious blows with the Zionists in over seven years now – intervenes (on a far greater scale) on the side of the incumbent dictatorship, this leaves no blemish on its “resistance” credentials whatsoever. This might well make perfect sense to Amin, but for those of us without the benefit of his peculiar perspicacity, it begs again that old question: against whom is this “resistance?”

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

How Europe emboldened Obama on Syria

[Originally posted at NOW]

UK and France played significant role in persuading Obama to act on alleged chemical weapons attack, say analysts

The six days that have passed since an alleged chemical weapons attack by the Syrian regime reportedly killed over 1,000 in the suburbs of Damascus have seen an unprecedented shift in the US government’s approach to the country’s devastating conflict. Having said as recently as Friday that he sought to avoid “being drawn into” any kind of military intervention in Syria, US President Barack Obama evidently underwent a significant change of heart over the weekend, with his Secretary of State John Kerry vowing in a strongly-worded statement Monday that there would be “accountability” for the “moral obscenity” he said was “undeniably” carried out by the Syrian regime in the East Ghouta neighborhood last Wednesday. On Tuesday, Western envoys reportedly told opposition leaders to expect a series of missile strikes on Syrian targets “within days.”

In concert with this reorientation has been a sustained and forceful advocacy campaign by European nations, particularly Britain and France. Just one day after reports of the chemical weapons attack emerged from Damascus, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius urged the use of “force” in response. On Monday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague declared that military action could and should be taken with or without UN Security Council approval, while Fabius said, “The only option that I do not envisage is to do nothing.” As though to underscore its message, Britain readied its naval vessels in the Mediterranean for a series of cruise missile strikes, and deployed fighter jets and transport planes to its sovereign base in Cyprus.

This encouragement from Europe has been a significant factor in convincing Obama that a military response to the alleged chemical attack is the appropriate course of action, according to analysts.

“It’s been the case that Britain and France have been out in front [of the US] for some time on the Syria intervention question,” said Dr. Alan Mendoza, founder and executive director of the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based think tank whose affiliates include members of UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s cabinet.

“Even before the latest developments, there were calls, particularly from France but also from David Cameron who has, I think, faced significant opposition from his backbenchers on the subject but has still maintained that he would like to do more for the Syrian people,” said Mendoza.

“[Britain and France] have been more forward-leaning [than the US,] not only now but in terms of different trade and assist programs that have been underway, in terms of engagement with the [Syrian] opposition, supporting different humanitarian aid efforts and development programs, a lot of the smaller things that you don’t hear about but have been really crucial in terms of international community outreach,” added Elizabeth O’Bagy, senior research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War and political director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force.

In terms of what motivates the Europeans to favor a more hardline approach to the Syrian regime, Mendoza argues it is chiefly attributable to the politicians’ personal convictions, particularly in the case of Cameron, whose interventionist stance is opposed not only by rivals in the Labour party but also a sizeable contingent within his own Conservative party.

“I think it’s a personal principle. The PM looks at this in a slightly different way to backbenchers who are looking at their own domestic constituents’ concerns. He’s looking at the international picture, at what’s happening in Syria, the broader strategic problems, the humanitarian nightmare. And he’s taken a principled stance, as well as, by the way, the strategically sensible stance that Britain needs to be involved.”

As for the French, domestic considerations may play a bigger role, says Mendoza. “Given the problems that [President Francois] Hollande faces at home, something like this would make it look a world leader and might assist in popularity in terms of restoring its political position. That said […] the French have always been out there on these issues. Remember the French together with the British led the Libya campaign as well.”

Indeed, even in Britain, Mendoza believes the British parliament might vote for a one-off, limited operation when it convenes on Thursday to debate the question.

“I think if chemical weapons use is proven, you will get a majority in the House of Commons who favor a response on that point. I’m not sure we’ll have a majority for a longer-term campaign.” In any case, the prime minister can legally make the decision to act without parliament’s approval, according to the BBC.

Finally, as much as these nations’ enthusiasm for action in Syria may have persuaded Obama, the president had sufficient reason of his own to act on Syria’s violation of what for over a year he had described as his “red line,” said analysts.

“To be frank I think it’s mostly because of what happened [in Damascus,] and the fact that this chemical weapon use, especially to this degree, has always been the ‘red line,’” said O’Bagy.

Mendoza agreed: “I think [Obama’s] been backed into a corner and if he wants to preserve any credibility internationally he has to make good on his own suggestion that there are ‘red lines’ that can’t be crossed.”

Monday, August 26, 2013

Speaking on Monocle 24 about Tripoli bombs

I and Prof. Fawaz Gerges spoke to Monocle 24 radio on Friday night about the Tripoli mosque bombings. Episode available here (I come on at 07:00).

Friday, August 23, 2013

Securing Lebanon: an impossible task?

[Originally posted at NOW]

As bombs kill scores across the country, Lebanon's internal divisions add immense difficulties to security forces' work.

Lebanon plunged further into a state of unusually severe violence Friday afternoon, as twin blasts tore through two densely-packed mosques following prayers in the northern city of Tripoli. The explosions, which have killed at least 42 at the time of going to press, come just eight days after a car bomb took 30 civilian lives on a residential street in Beirut’s southern suburbs – the deadliest such attack since the 1975-90 civil war, until Friday's.

The eight intervening days have seen Lebanon’s various security forces scramble to bolster citizens’ safety, implementing an array of precautionary measures including checkpoints, army and police patrols, the detention and indictment of terror suspects, and increased bomb-scanning of vehicles in public car parks. While these efforts appear to have yielded some successes – most notably the discovery of a car laden with 250kg of explosives in Naameh on Saturday, as well as that of a bomb rigged to explode in Tyre on Thursday – Friday’s blasts in Tripoli tragically demonstrated the limitations of what Caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel has called the security “road map.”

Practically speaking, security experts told NOW that beyond basic measures such as checkpoints and searches, what security forces need above all to thwart attacks like these is effective intelligence.

“Whether it’s eavesdropping, communication data, or cooperation with local and regional players, it is all about information,” said retired Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) General Elias Hanna. “Because it’s not a well-known enemy, it’s a shadowy one. You have to have inside information, which is highly difficult with this kind of threat.”

“Nothing is as good as human intelligence,” agreed Riad Kahwaji, founder and CEO of the Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA). “Especially communication intelligence, this is what’s required. But still, the complications in Lebanon pose the greatest challenge for the work of security services.”

Indeed, all experts NOW spoke with stressed the considerable obstacles to successful attack prevention posed by Lebanon’s perennial political segregation.

“There is no cooperation between the security apparatuses,” said Hanna. “One is considered Sunni, one is considered Shiite, one is considered Maronite, one is considered Catholic, so there is no consensus even on security issues. When you have [a bomb] in Dahiyeh, the other side is laughing, and vice versa.”

“When you have a country that has so much political division, with so much sectarian conflict in the region, and the presence of armed militias, all this makes the task of security services very complicated,” said Kahwaji.

Moreover, argues Kahwaji, possible affiliations between powerful Lebanese factions and the perpetrators of attacks themselves add self-evident difficulties.

“There are obviously some foreign intelligence agencies involved in [these attacks.] [Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan] Nasrallah is blaming everything happening on the so-called ‘takfiris,’ but we haven’t seen any suicide bombings. All of these have been car bombs, which is usually the act of intelligence agencies, whether it’s in Dahiyeh or today in Tripoli.”

“Let’s not forget – people keep forgetting this – the biggest preemption of bomb attacks ever carried out in Lebanon was with the apprehension of [former minister] Michel Samaha. That was the biggest operation that preempted and prevented massive car bombs a year ago. And that [implicated] Syrian intelligence. So how are we going to deal with intelligence agencies such as the Syrian ones when you have militias like Hezbollah allied with them and working together with them?”

With politics being so central an impediment to security, retired LAF General Nizar Abdel-Kader told NOW the only truly viable solution was conciliation between feuding parties.

“Putting a stop to all these security threats starts with some type of consensus among the various political factions to form a government. And to really give this government the opportunity to work and make decisions [and] encourage the judiciary, especially the prosecutor’s office, to call on all security agencies to give them the names of all terror suspects […] This is the only way we can preserve stability.”

Hanna agrees: “It’s about cooperation, about having political consensus. Because in Lebanon especially, security is about the ambience, the political environment.”

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Among the believers

[Originally posted at NOW]

NOW talks to Nada Abdelsamad, whose new documentary looks at Lebanon’s increasingly violent Salafist movement

While many foreigners might readily associate Lebanese Islamism with Hezbollah – the Shiite militia-cum-party’s “military wing” was designated a terror organization by the European Union last month – the past year has seen an unprecedented surge in violence from Sunni Islamist groups, many of whom draw on a militant interpretation of a theological school known as Salafism. Representing a marginal fringe of Lebanon’s Sunni community, historically Salafists were mostly confined to the northern city of Tripoli.

However, in June, Salafist fighters waged a bloody two-day battle with the Lebanese army in Sidon, killing over a dozen soldiers. And on Thursday, an obscure Sunni extremist group claimed responsibility for a car bomb in Dahiyeh that took thirty civilian lives – the deadliest car bomb since the 1975-90 civil war and the most violent ever attack by Sunni militants against the Lebanese Shiite community.

In an attempt to shine a light on the often murky methods and motivations of these Salafists, journalist and author Nada Abdelsamad recently produced a video documentary (see above link) based on extensive interviews with the movement’s leading figures and their devotees. NOW spoke with Abdelsamad about her findings and where the Salafists’ future might be heading.

NOW: Clearly, Lebanon has seen a marked rise in Salafism-related violence in recent weeks. What do you think are the relations between the people you met and the ones carrying out these attacks?

Nada Abdelsamad: Those that I met were clear about their target: they want a khilafa [caliphate, or Islamic state] in Lebanon. We can’t say if there’s a link between those I met and those who are targeting Shiite areas because we still don’t know who is doing this. Is it even a Lebanese faction? We don’t know.

NOW: So you don’t know who the group calling itself the ‘Brigades of Aisha, Mother of the Believers,’ that claimed responsibility for Thursday’s attack in south Beirut, could be?

Abdelsamad: No, the groups I met were well-known in Tripoli. They are not hiding behind group names.

NOW: Do Salafists differ in terms of their willingness to use violence (i.e. are some jihadist and others non-jihadist)?

Abdelsamad: This is what the film tried to answer, this was one of my main questions. They said there is no difference between Salafists. They might be jihadists if they were obliged to be, but the only jihadist faction now is the one led by a guy who doesn’t like to be in the media and nobody knows about him, called Hossam Sabbagh. He’s the only jihadist, although [Sheikh Dai al-Islam] al-Shahhal said he has been trying to build an armed faction after what happened in Beirut in May 2008. This is not only what al-Shahhal said but what [Sheikh Salem] al-Rafei said too.

NOW: Regarding Sabbagh, you mention in the documentary that he previously fought in Afghanistan. Is the war in Syria today likely to produce a future generation of Lebanese jihadists like him?

Abdelsamad: They said that only five people [from among Lebanon’s Salafists] have been killed in Syria. Do you think a huge number of young people from Tripoli are fighting in Syria? If there is involvement, it’s not on a big scale.

NOW: Just two weeks ago there were reports that two brothers from Tripoli had blown themselves up in a suicide bombing in Homs.

Abdelsamad: Yes. You have to add those two to three before. So in total there are only five. They are not hiding their call to fight in Syria, but are people going there? I’m not sure.

It’s different from Hezbollah. Hezbollah is an organized party, but Salafists are not so clearly organized. They can call on people to go and fight in Syria, but people can decide whether they want to go or not. This is unlike Hezbollah, whose leader made a political decision [to intervene in Syria].

NOW: One interesting moment was when you visited the studio of the Irtiqaa (“upgrading”) radio station. How significant are things like this in spreading the Salafist message?

Abdelsamad: It’s important because now they have institutions, radios, schools, universities, and they’re becoming more complete parties and this is what they want. As I told you, their main target is to impose a khilafa, and they think a khilafa is coming.

NOW: What other media do they make use of?

Abdelsamad: Every sheikh has his website, and you have all the prayers, all the Friday sermons online, in video and print. They are well-organized.

NOW: It was also fascinating to see women taking on activist roles, even giving speeches to fellow women promoting the cause.

Abdelsamad: I think we didn’t know about them a lot, but the women in the Salafist movement are prominent. One of them I interviewed, Umm Hudaifa, gives sermons in one of the mosques, and many people attend every week. These women are part of Lebanese society now.

NOW: Some argue that Salafist militants in, for example, Bab al-Tabbaneh are not truly motivated by religion, but instead are poor people who fight primarily because they get paid to do so. You’ve seen these people up close: do you think this is the case, or are they sincere believers in the ideology?

Abdelsamad: We have to look at the Salafist movement away from the ongoing fight in Tripoli. Salafism is not growing because of the fight with Jabal Mohsen, the movement is growing in the whole region because you have an Islamist Spring, you have the fighting in Syria and Hezbollah’s involvement there. They think Hezbollah is killing Sunnis. This is the main point.

NOW: Some also argue that Salafist ideology is foreign to Lebanon and has only spread due to financial inducements from the Gulf countries. What do you say to that?

Abdelsamad: They don’t hide it. If you ask them who is paying for these schools and movements, they say that they have direct money from Saudi Arabia, from Qatar, from NGOs in Kuwait. The Ministry of Awqaf [“financial endowments”] in Saudi Arabia is paying these schools. It’s not something they hide.

NOW: Finally, is Salafism a long-term threat to Lebanon’s democracy and security, or is it something the country can coexist with?

Abdelsamad: I cannot predict but it’s clear that the Salafists do not believe in Lebanon’s constitution. That’s why they don’t run in elections. They don’t seem to want to impose their khilafa by force, because they know that Lebanon is different. But, still, the khilafa is their aim.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Post-Dahiyeh denial

[Originally posted at NOW]

The attack was the first of its kind (Reuters/Mohamed Azakir)

“At my favorite Mar Mikhael resto. Owner says place kept full since last explosion as Lebanese decided NOTHING will stop them loving life. :)”

So read a tweet on my Twitter timeline Saturday night. Though clearly intended as a much-needed boost to the spirits after an appalling and horrifying tragedy, it only compounded the unease I’ve felt for Lebanon since Thursday’s attack.

The significance of what happened in Dahiyeh doesn’t seem to have sunk in. Have the Lebanese grown so accustomed to the sight of black smoke rising above their neighborhoods that they no longer differentiate between one blast and another – no longer try to discern what the latest disfiguration of the skyline might mean, or portend?

Certainly it seemed so when, in the hours following the blast, politicians across the board rushed to confidently declare it the handiwork of Israel. They must have felt almost as ridiculous as they sounded when none other than Hassan Nasrallah – not normally the kind of guy to give the Zionists the benefit of the doubt – later accused what everyone knew were the more likely culprits.

It’s precisely this that makes the Ruwais attack – the deadliest car bomb since the civil war – a first of its kind. To put it frankly (and to shy from sectarian terminology here would only be another indulgence of self-delusion): this is the first time in Lebanon’s history that a bombing has been carried out by religious extremists purely for the purpose of murdering civilians from a rival sect. For all its infamous faith-based frictions, the country has never before witnessed anything comparable to the outright jihadist slaughter that has so devastated Iraq, and is now in the process of devastating Syria. (Indeed, as Michael Young noted not long ago, Sunni-Shia violence in Lebanon is in fact a very recent phenomenon, having no real precedent prior to 2008.) And yet, if the claim of the ‘Aisha, Mother of the Believers Brigade’ to have carried out Thursday’s attack is true, then this most terrifying brand of violence has indeed now arrived.

What’s worse, there is every reason to believe it’s here to stay for the foreseeable future. When Nasrallah addressed the nation the following evening, he had a unique opportunity to conciliate his antagonists. Instead, he took the option of maximum provocation; declaring an open-ended fight to the death, arrogantly pledging to double the number of his fighters in Syria and boasting that he himself would kill opponents of the Assad regime if it came to that. Rather than admit the slightest contrition for his complicity in a war in which – it must be conceded – all sides have committed atrocities, he portrayed his cause as one of unblemished virtue, in which not an inch of compromise or restraint was acceptable.

The manner in which these sentiments will have been received by al-Qaeda and its many imitators is only too easy to imagine, and the discoveries of things like cars packed with a quarter of a ton of explosives are evidently going to become increasingly frequent. The US State Department now believes Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Iraqi al-Qaeda franchise that is still killing hundreds of Shia every month, has relocated his operational headquarters to Syria. How difficult will it be for his mujahideen to cross Syria’s almost non-existent western border and set up shop in the Levant’s weakest state?

It’s probably still possible for Lebanon to halt its national descent into sectarian carnage, but it will require a radical change of course from everyone. First, the country’s feuding security agencies should agree that, whatever their differences on other matters, they will cooperate fully with one another as far as these kinds of attacks are concerned. Second, Sunni powers must use all the leverage at their disposal to contain the extremists among their ranks, including ceasing whatever financial and political patronage they provide to armed groups. Finally, at the risk of stating the utterly obvious, Hezbollah should immediately and completely withdraw from Syria.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

UNIFIL feels the Syria squeeze

[Originally posted at NOW]

Recent developments, fuelled in part by Syria’s war, have renewed UN peacekeepers’ security concerns.

The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), established in 1978 with the aim of overseeing the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon and the maintenance of peace along the border thereafter, has perhaps inevitably never had the easiest work environment. Distrusted by both Lebanese militants and the Israeli army – which continued to occupy the south until 2000 – the Force’s troops have for decades been subject to occasional violent attacks from both sides of the Blue Line, incurring just under 300 casualties to date.

Since the 2006 war, when UNIFIL’s mandate became the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1701, the Force has enjoyed an unprecedented period of calm, with off-duty troops freely mingling with the local population in, for example, the various beach resorts of Tyre. However, recent developments, fuelled in part by the war in neighboring Syria, have put the organization under renewed strain.

First came the 29 July decision by the European Union to designate the so-called “military wing” of Hezbollah as a terror organization, a move which sparked a campaign of criticism and even threats against UNIFIL from various Hezbollah-affiliated circles. Thirteen of UNIFIL’s thirty-seven contributing nations are EU members.

Twelve days later came the news that Turkey would withdraw the vast majority of its UNIFIL contingent, announced one day after two Turkish Airlines pilots were kidnapped on Beirut’s airport road – the second abduction of Turkish citizens in Lebanon in thirteen months. Saturday’s kidnapping is thought to be related to the nine Lebanese hostages held in the Syrian town of Azaz, near the Turkish border, whose families accuse the Turkish government of preventing their relatives’ release. Turkey has since called on all its citizens in Lebanon to leave the country.

UNIFIL spokesperson Andrea Tenenti asserted to NOW that Turkey’s decision to withdraw 240 of its roughly 300 troops was a routine procedure, unrelated to the recent kidnapping and indeed made prior to it.

“This was something that was discussed in detail last month. We received a cable from New York on 6 August, and we sent [a statement] out then, but most media did not pick it up,” said Tenenti. “This is a constant process, nations have certain troops reducing and others withdraw or increase their participation.” He added that there were no plans at present to replace the Turkish contingent.

However, former UNIFIL spokesperson Timur Goksel, himself a Turkish citizen, told NOW that security concerns were likely central to the decision.

“The main reason, although they haven’t officially announced it, is that Turkish soldiers in UNIFIL are not combat soldiers, they are a technical unit of engineers. And over the past months, because of increasing threats against UNIFIL and the Turks, these soldiers are spending most of their time in security-related functions, instead of doing their [usual] jobs. And they are feeling uncomfortable about this. As I said, these are technicians […] and they’ve done beautiful things for UNIFIL and for the public, building playgrounds and football grounds for children […] but now they worry more about security than doing their jobs.”

“Can you imagine, these soldiers come to Lebanon and leave without seeing Beirut because of security concerns? This is very disturbing. It wasn’t the case [previously], when we used to enable and encourage troops to travel all over Lebanon. Times have changed,” Goksel told NOW.

Which raises the question as to what might be the effects of the EU decision regarding Hezbollah. A report in May cited UNIFIL troops’ frustration at facing increased incidents of harassment and intimidation in the south, usually at the hands of Hezbollah. Following the EU’s announcement last month, media figures close to the Party such as Al-Akhbar editor-in-chief Ibrahim al-Amin – said to be a personal friend of Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah – issued thinly-veiled threats of “military” consequences for European members of UNIFIL, whom Amin said were now “operating behind enemy lines.” Similarly, a Hezbollah-affiliated mayor said, “People are not going to accept [UNIFIL troops] living among them and calling them terrorists,” although he denied there would be a violent response.

As far as Tenenti is concerned, such statements are no cause for concern. “There is a difference between rhetoric and reality. On the ground the situation is quiet, it’s calm, the security of our peacekeepers has not changed,” he told NOW.

Goksel largely concurred, though he said there were prospects of further petty harassment from locals.

“UNIFIL is a security asset for Hezbollah, and more than that it serves the people who are Hezbollah’s basic constituency. So Hezbollah is not taking a position against UNIFIL as such, but what UNIFIL countries fear is a possible reaction by local people who might think that if Hezbollah is angry with the EU, we must be angry with them too, and they might modify their attitude. They might be more negative, you might have youngsters blocking convoys and throwing stones and things like this.”

“There is no fear of an official reaction from Hezbollah. I mean if Hezbollah wanted they could make life miserable for UNIFIL, everyone knows that.”

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Why al-Qaeda does not threaten Lebanon, yet

[Originally posted at NOW]

The alleged detection by U.S. intelligence agencies of what some officials say are the most serious al-Qaeda attack plots since September 11, 2001, has led to the closure until August 10th of nineteen American embassies across the Middle East.

The measure was described by the State Department as one taken “out of an abundance of caution.” Yet, despite a precedent for attacks on the U.S. embassy in Lebanon, as well as reports that the CIA warned Lebanese officials just last month of plans for impending attacks by al-Qaeda-linked groups in the country, the U.S. facility in Awkar, northeast of Beirut, was one of very few in the region to remain open this week.

In a statement sent to NOW via email, the U.S. embassy said it “does not discuss the specifics of our security operations. The Embassy has not changed its operating hours as a result of the travel advisory.” It declined to confirm whether reports that a team of senior U.S. specialists would travel to Lebanon to bolster embassy security were true.

According to analysts, one possible reason the embassy has stayed open is that it is already deemed sufficiently secure.

“Some of the U.S. facilities are more secure than others,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, author of Bin Laden’s Legacy and Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “It could be that some posts are more vulnerable to specific methods of attack. For example, if the method of attack is believed to be, say, a car bomb, then certain facilities are better insulated against car bombs.”

Others argue the primary reason is that there simply isn’t a significant threat from al-Qaeda in Lebanon, despite brief episodes of al-Qaeda-linked violence such as the 2007 war between Fatah al-Islam and the Lebanese army in Nahr al-Bared.

“All that we hear about al-Qaeda [in Lebanon] is a bunch of nonsense,” said Riad Kahwaji, founder and CEO of the Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA). “In Lebanon there was never, ever a record of al-Qaeda successfully establishing itself. We have a record of al-Qaeda attempting, sending teasers, to see whether they can have a base here, but they never did. So Lebanon is not regarded as a country where al-Qaeda has strong capabilities,” he told NOW.

This, Kahwaji believes, is for two key reasons.

“First, Lebanon has a lot of intelligence activities; a lot of foreign [intelligence] services are established. Second, the Sunni community doesn’t really share the ideologies of al-Qaeda. They know from the Fatah al-Islam experience [about] the links [they] have with Syrian intelligence. [Al-Qaeda] was never accepted as one of their own.”

Gartenstein-Ross concurs that the nature of the Sunni community in Lebanon has been resistant to al-Qaeda infiltration.

“Given Lebanon’s own awful experience with civil war, part of it could be that the Sunnis just aren’t too eager to let al-Qaeda in. They’ve seen what al-Qaeda’s done in other countries; they have terrible experiences of what could happen to their country, so perhaps given that history, al-Qaeda’s narrative just isn’t that appealing.”

Even so, in light of the war raging in neighboring Syria – in which al-Qaeda subsidiaries such as The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) are heavily involved – certain analysts fear al-Qaeda’s influence is on the rise in Lebanon. Such fears are compounded by the participation of an estimated few hundred Lebanese Sunnis in the war – including jihadists, as seen most recently in the suicide bombings in Homs province Friday carried out by two brothers from Tripoli – and the porousness of the Lebanese-Syrian border.

“I fully agree […] that right now given what’s going on in Syria I have concerns that you may at some point see a greater al-Qaeda presence within Lebanon,” Gartenstein-Ross told NOW.

“But they have a strong incentive not to carry out an attack [in Lebanon] in that if they do, the porousness of the border is going to decline, which makes Lebanon a less appealing place for them to utilize.”

Kahwaji, by contrast, feels the prospects for an increased al-Qaeda foothold in the country are highly limited.

“It’s not easy. Lebanon is a small country, it’s not Iraq with its vast geography, or Libya, or Yemen, where you can go and disappear in the remote desert […] The intelligence for the Lebanese army, for Lebanese security [authorities], for the other agencies, are all over the place and therefore [militants] get picked up easily, so it’s not a safe ground for them.”

“Also they need to find communities that will share their thoughts and agree to give them safe haven. You can find a village or two that could have this sentiment, but that’s it.”

“It’s not safe and it never will be safe for al-Qaeda to operate in Lebanon.”

A victory for religious freedom

[Originally posted at NOW]

Novy's passionate devotion to his faith in the Flying Spaghetti Monster is an inspiration to us all (Source:
So woeful has become the lot of believers in the world’s many great faiths in recent years – what with the incessant menace emanating on all fronts from militant atheism and intolerant rationalism – that the rare occasions on which a small measure of slack is cut for a religious community are always worth celebrating.

The latest act of successful resistance against the oppressive secularist machine took place this weekend in the Czech Republic, where Lukáš Nový won the right to wear a plastic pasta strainer on his head in his official government ID card photo, as per the teachings of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, of which he is a devotee. Government officials rightly ruled that to prevent him from practicing his faith in this way would constitute a violation of the country’s religious equality laws.

This is now the second time that the long-beleaguered Pastafarian community (as Flying Spaghetti Monster worshippers are also known) has made such a breakthrough, the first being the case of Austrian citizen Niko Alm, who successfully earned the right to wear his spaghetti sieve in his driving license photo in 2011.

One can only hope these small gains will pave the way for wider acceptance of Pastafarianism, whose claim that the Universe was created by a beer-drinking deity composed of spaghetti and meatballs has every bit as much supporting evidence as the alternative Creation accounts of more established religions.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

The fall of Homs in context

[Originally posted at NOW]

Rebels had not posed a real threat to the Syrian regime in Homs since the summer of 2012.

The reclaiming by the Syrian regime and allied forces of one of the last remaining rebel-held neighborhoods in the central city of Homs on Monday marked a second territorial defeat for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in two months, coming on the heels of the fall of the nearby town of Qusayr in June.

The Khalidiyeh neighborhood, which regime forces battered for weeks with air strikes and surface-to-surface missiles in coordination with Lebanese Hezbollah units, was a key link in the rebels’ chain between the Old City and the few remaining adjacent ‘liberated’ neighborhoods of the city once known to the opposition as the “capital of revolution,” or the “citadel of the terrorists” to the regime.

Its fall prompted speculation that regime forces would soon sweep the entire city, and then turn their attention northwards to Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and now the only major one in which the rebels have a sizeable and comparatively secure presence. However, as of Saturday the fighting in Homs is continuing, and according to both activists on the ground and foreign analysts NOW spoke with, the regime is unlikely to be in a position to advance on Aleppo any time soon.

“In Homs, the opposition is still holding on in Jurat al-Shiyah, al-Qusur, al-Qarabis, Bab al-Dreb, Bab Turkman, Bab Houd, and Wadi al-Sayeh,” said Muhammad Radwan Raad, a Homs-based activist. He added, however, that “it is very unlikely that they will be able to keep hold of these neighborhoods because they only have AK-47s and RPGs.” Asked to estimate the number of rebels remaining in the city, Raad said it was in the hundreds, although “it is very hard to determine [because] many [have been] killed after the battles.”

As for what would likely follow the complete fall of Homs, Raad was in agreement with analysts NOW spoke to that it is the roads and countryside between Homs and Damascus, rather than Aleppo, that will be the next targets, although preparations for an eventual showdown in Aleppo will also be made wherever possible.

“The regime recently took control of the strategic village of Abel, on the Homs-Tartous highway. Now, it is seeking to take control of another road leading to Aleppo and a third one that links Homs with Damascus. Clashes are ongoing and once the regime takes control of these roads, it will move on to Homs’ northern fringes.”

There are several reasons the regime will likely avoid a substantial Aleppo offensive in the near term, according to Elizabeth O’Bagy, senior research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.

“The interesting demographic balance in Homs actually favored the regime because you had so many Shiite – specifically Lebanese Shiite – and Alawite villages in the surrounding countryside,” O’Bagy told NOW. “You don’t see that in and around Aleppo so I think it’ll be much more difficult for the regime to find the right areas to launch operations from. This is exactly what we saw with some of the defeats that the opposition was able to inflict on Hezbollah.”

“I think after the regime won Qusayr it made the mistake of trying to advance onto Aleppo too quickly without consolidating its gains and so the recent offensive in Homs was actually their realization that they’d overplayed their hand. I think that for some time you’ll see them continuing to consolidate in and around Homs. They’re going to have to send significant reinforcements from Homs back to Damascus because of the rebel offensive going on there right now.”

Indeed, O’Bagy argues that recent rebel accomplishments in Damascus – such as the seizure of an anti-tank and ground-to-ground missiles depot Saturday – defy an increasingly current media narrative of the regime being close to military victory over the opposition.

“Momentum is clearly in favor of the regime right now, and there has been a shift in the tide of battles because of Hezbollah’s involvement [and] assistance from Iran and Russia, but what is often ignored is the fact that when the regime makes significant gains in one area they often lose territory in others. There is a major [rebel] offensive going on in Damascus right now. The opposition is able to enter neighborhoods that it has never been able to enter before. And they’ve also had some significant victories in and around Aleppo.”

Moreover, argues O’Bagy, many observers exaggerate the tangible significance of rebel defeat in Homs.

“The opposition hasn’t really had a strong presence in Homs since the summer of 2012. It’s important psychologically because it’s seen as an essential part of the resistance front but strategically the opposition hasn’t really been able to do much from Homs and they’ve never been able to effectively combat regime forces in and around that area.”

Christine Sleiman contributed reporting.