Friday, September 27, 2013

Tripoli figures skeptical of security plan

[Originally posted at NOW]

City leaders tell NOW plans to replicate Dahiyeh's security measures in Tripoli are fraught with complications.

The deployment of state security forces across dozens of new checkpoints in Beirut’s southern suburbs – intended to replace the controversial private measures taken by local Hezbollah strongmen – has sparked proposals to implement a similar move in the northern city of Tripoli.

Both Dahiyeh (as the southern suburbs are informally known) and Tripoli were struck by highly deadly car bombings in August, prompting a nationwide security clampdown that critics from both sides of the political divide argue has favored Dahiyeh at Tripoli’s expense. “Is what happened in Tripoli any less serious than what happened in Dahiyeh?”asked Caretaker Youth and Sports Minister Faisal Karami, one of Hezbollah’s relatively few allies in the northern city. “The people of Tripoli have the right to ask: Why is it that every time we ask for security measures […] we are told […] that we must make do with what we have?”

Accordingly, Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Miqati – himself a Tripoli native – has called for a meeting Friday with Caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel along with security officials and other politicians to discuss the possibility of replicating the Dahiyeh plan in Tripoli.

No specific details of the proposals on the table have thus far emerged. Yet leading political figures in the city told NOW that while they would welcome effective measures by state institutions to tackle Tripoli’s chronic instability, they were highly skeptical that anything meaningful would come out of Friday’s discussions.

“This is a déjà vu phenomenon, because we have seen previous plans about fourteen or fifteen times over the past few years in Tripoli, and many of them were really serious, and we as citizens and politicians don’t understand why they have ceased to exist all of a sudden,” said Future Movement MP Mustafa Alloush. “What we [typically see] in Tripoli is all of a sudden we have a security plan, thousands of troops and security officers gather for a week or two, maybe a month, and then it disappears.”

“I don’t see anything new,” agreed former MP Mosbah al-Ahdab of the Democratic Renewal (Tajaddod) Movement, who added that such efforts have invariably been sabotaged in the past by corruption and political patronage, some of it involving Miqati himself. “Miqati has requested the state many times to make this security plan in Tripoli, and it’s always secretive, and at the end of the day it ends up having roadblocks stopping people, but those who should be arrested have permits to pass and are not allowed to be arrested.”

“If Miqati wants to […] do something, let him stop financing fighters,” said Ahdab, echoing prior accusations that the caretaker prime minister is a prominent sponsor of various armed groups in the city.

Adding to the complications is the question of whether these militias, many of which distrust state security forces, would accept the deployment of the army in their quarters. In June, gunmen clashed with the army when it intervened to quell the latest in a long series of battles between the Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen neighborhoods.

Sheikh Salem al-Rafei, a cleric with ties to many of Bab al-Tabbaneh’s militants who narrowly escaped assassination in one of the car bombs last month, told NOW he did not know enough about the security plan to comment on whether or not he would support it. He implied, however, that it was unnecessary because there were no checkpoints comparable to Hezbollah’s in Dahiyeh to replace.

“I do not understand the nature of this security plan because we don’t have ‘self-security’ in Tripoli, as they did in Dahiyeh,” Rafei told NOW. He added that he thought investigating who carried out the previous car bombs was a more pressing concern.

Alloush, for his part, opined that if militants would actively oppose the security plan, that in itself would only underscore the urgent need for it to be executed.

“If we have to wait for the agreement of militiamen to surrender their arms, we will be in a comedy, not a state.”

Luna Safwan contributed reporting.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Why did al-Qaeda turn on the FSA?

[Originally posted at NOW]

Months of mistrust, power politics, and disagreement over prospective Western intervention have driven recent violence between opposition brigades.

In his address marking the twelfth anniversary of the 11 September, 2001, World Trade Center attacks, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri made a conspicuous addition to his organization’s lengthy list of foes. For the first time, formally included in the “enemies of Islam” umbrella category was the loose alliance of militant Syrian opposition brigades commonly known as the Free Syrian Army (FSA), whom Zawahiri denounced as treacherous tools of America akin to the ‘Sahwa [Awakening]’ militias financed by the US to combat al-Qaeda in Iraq. The fugitive warlord vowed to “destroy” the FSA factions with whom al-Qaeda’s fighters in Syria have hitherto tended to cooperate against the Bashar al-Assad regime.

This policy shift coincided with last week’s launch of a so-called “Purification of Filth” (naqi al-khabath) campaign by al-Qaeda’s primary Syrian franchise, the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which the group said would comprise military attacks in eastern Aleppo against rival factions including the al-Farouq and al-Nasr brigades, both of which nominally fall under the command of the Western-backed Supreme Military Council (SMC) led by General Salim Idris. On Tuesday, photos circulated on social media appearing to show ISIS executing a man in public on charges of belonging to a “Sahwa” (i.e. SMC) group. And for more than a week prior to that, ISIS had engaged in fatal clashes with SMC fighters in Deir az-Zour and al-Raqqa provinces.

Hostilities then reached uncharted territory when on Wednesday ISIS violently seized the northern town of Azaz from the SMC’s Northern Storm Brigade, prompting fellow SMC faction Liwa al-Tawheed to send its fighters to “liberate” the town from the jihadists. A ceasefire deal was later negotiated, and the three groups have now divided the territory between themselves for the time being.

Syrian media activists told NOW that while the pretext for the Azaz clashes was ISIS’ objection to a foreign doctor’s presence in the town, it also appeared to be a plain power grab by the al-Qaeda affiliate.

“ISIS members stormed the Azaz civil hospital during a visit by a German doctor from Doctors without Borders, and demanded that the doctor leave the hospital and leave town immediately,” Aleppo-based activist Naqaa Sadeq told NOW. When the Northern Storm Brigade refused this demand, “the takfiris [ISIS] deemed it permissible for them to control all headquarters in Azaz and began invading houses.”

Much the same rationale was behind the al-Raqqa clashes, according to a local activist who would only give his name as Wael. “The first clash between extremist battalions and the FSA occurred in the Tel Abyad area, which controls the border crossing. Since then, ISIS has spread its influence by controlling vital positions in the liberated areas,” he told NOW.

Beyond mere power politics, however, distrust between jihadists and more moderate opposition forces – which has been reported since at least July, when ISIS killed a number of SMC fighters, including a senior commander, in Latakia and Idlib provinces – has recently been aggravated by the prospect of Western military intervention in Syria following the chemical weapons attack in Damascus in August. As the Guardian’s Martin Chulov reported from Aleppo earlier this month, while ISIS fighters vehemently oppose a US-led strike, believing it to be a plot to target them, the SMC’s rebels welcome the idea, with one even adding that he “hope[s] the Americans know where [ISIS’] headquarters are” too.

Accordingly, when the US backed away from its militant posture in favor of a Russian-sponsored compromise, ISIS may have sensed an opportunity to score a hit against their SMC rivals, according to Charles Lister, analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre.

“The perceived decline in forceful Western pressure on Assad over the last [ten] days has bolstered jihadist confidence and weakened the image of the core moderates […] by combating moderates currently hostile to them, jihadists may be hoping to nip the problem in the bud,” Lister told NOW.

There is also growing resentment at ISIS and its fellow al-Qaeda surrogate, Jabhat al-Nusra, for their increasingly authoritarian rule over the territories they hold, said Lister.

“Both ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra have exerted increasingly public levels of social control in northern and eastern Syria in recent weeks and there is no doubt that this has generated frustration within some locally-based moderate groups.”

Among local civilians, too, dissatisfaction with the jihadists has frequently been on display. At a demonstration in Aleppo Friday, residents chanted familiar anti-Assad songs, but with da’ish [the Arabic acronym for ISIS] in place of the president’s name. And on the Twitter social media network, pro-opposition Syrian users widely circulated the sloganDa’ish does not represent me”.

With rebels now dedicating time and resources to battles against fellow rebels, the question arises as to whether the Assad regime stands to gain militarily. Certainly that is the view of some opposition fighters, who see the descent into rebel-on-rebel killing as handing Assad victory, according to Chulov. Yet Lister told NOW the reality may be more complex.

“So far, incidents of infighting have remained isolated to less active military zones, so the impact on the overall battle against the government has been minimal. However, if this situation expands further, then yes, the military could feasibly benefit, but likely still only on a localized level.”

Doha Hassan contributed reporting.

Don't fall for Rouhani's crude deception

[Originally posted at NOW]

It’s incredible how little it takes for otherwise rational people to give dictatorships the benefit of the doubt, and to rapidly un-learn facts they’ve spent years acquiring. To judge by the credulity of some reactions to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s recent charm offensive, culminating in his op-ed in today’s Washington Post, the cleric is only one step away from flying to Tel Aviv and singing John Lennon’s “Imagine” in a gay bar.

If you thought Putin’s musings in the NYT last week were gut-twistingly hypocritical, you’ve seen nothing yet. Perhaps encouraged by how easy his comrade made it look, Rouhani allows himself to pontificate on Syria as though he were the president of, say, East Timor, rather than the primary state sponsor of the regime that has annihilated the country and its people.

He laments the “challenges” of “terrorism, extremism, [and] foreign military interference” that plague the world, and their association with “hard power and the use of brute force.” He tells us that, “Sadly, unilateralism often continues to overshadow constructive approaches” to global crises. “Militant extremists continue to wreak havoc,” he regrets, including in Syria, “a jewel of civilization, [which] has become the scene of heartbreaking violence, including chemical weapons attacks, which we strongly condemn.” He goes on to ask everyone to “join hands to constructively work toward national dialogue” in order that the “peoples of the region can decide their own fates.”

Before anyone pulls out their acoustic guitar for a fireside Kumbaya chorus, let’s remind ourselves about some of that “hard power” and “brute force” on the ground in Syria today.

As a brilliant Wall Street Journal report documented just four days ago, citing senior Iranian military sources including Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) members, Iran has taken its direct (and rather “unilateral”) intervention in Syria to unprecedented levels in recent weeks, rigorously training co-religionists from all over the Arab world in Tehran before sending them to fight what it tells them is an “epic battle for Shiite Islam” alongside its own nationals on Syrian soil itself. The very same Guards leaders who engineered the 2009 steamrolling of the ‘Green Movement’ have now been handed the Syrian file, and are controlling not just the Lebanese Hezbollah and various Iraqi militias, but a significant portion of the Syrian army itself – an IRGC commander was recently filmed in Aleppo stating that he’d been in charge of certain regime units for over a year and a half now. This is of course in addition to Tehran’s central role in building the 100,000-strong paramilitary “National Defense Force,” modeled on its own Basij, and the $4.6bn it has offered Assad in credit this year alone.

Speaking of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Khomeinists have only bolstered their presence in Syria since driving the opposition out of Qusayr and Homs. “Today, Hezbollah independently runs Qusayr,” says the WSJ. “The Lebanese militia has established an operations base in the town’s northern section that is off-limits to most Syrian civilians.” (The Party of God, needless to add, remains quite happy with the language of force inside Lebanon itself; repeatedly threatening war if the cabinet formation doesn’t meet its expectations, and gunning down Hashem Salman, a 28-year-old student, during a peaceful demonstration outside Beirut’s Iranian embassy in June.)

As for the crocodile tears over last month’s chemical weapons attacks, Rouhani (like Putin) only condemns them because he says the rebels were responsible for them (which recent Human Rights Watch analysis, based on the UN’s findings, shows is quite impossible).

In other words, whatever rhetorical yarns Rouhani spins at the UN General Assembly next week (to which he is cannily bringing along Iran’s only Jewish MP), Tehran’s actual policy will continue to follow the ethos embodied in the words of the IRGC’s Quds Force leader, Qasem Soleimani: “Syria is the front line of resistance. We will support Syria to the end.”

Monday, September 16, 2013

After twenty years, Oslo defender changes his mind

[Originally posted at NOW]

It was twenty years to the day Friday since Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin shook hands on the White House lawn to mark the signing of the first Oslo Accord, and while the politically correct opinion may continue to be that this was a genuine, if short-lived, high point for humanity, many who were enthusiastic at the time have come to take a considerably dimmer view in retrospect.

Take Avi Shlaim, the eminent Iraqi-born Israeli historian who wrote in The Guardian last Thursday of his disillusionment with the initiative he had defended in an October 1993 issue of the London Review of Books against the scathing criticisms of Edward Said. “20 years on, it is clear that Said was right in his analysis and I was wrong,” he now concedes.

Shlaim pins the bulk of the blame on Netanyahu, who “spent his first three years as PM in a largely successful attempt to arrest, undermine, and subvert the accords concluded by his Labor predecessors,” particularly with regard to the settlements. We know this is certainly the case – indeed, Netanyahu later boasted that “I stopped the Oslo Accords” by signing the lesser-known 1997 Hebron Agreement with the PLO, indefinitely legitimizing continued Israeli occupation of vaguely-defined “military locations” inside the West Bank. “Nobody said what defined military zones were […] as far as I’m concerned, the entire Jordan Valley is a defined military zone. Go argue,” as he tactfully spelled out.

Yet, as Said saw clearly in his ‘93 essay, the accords were always going to fail, with or without Netanyahu’s sabotage. Inequity and injustice were their very foundations. Re-reading the piece today, it’s impossible not to be struck by how handsomely it’s aged.

He saw – as surely anyone could have seen – that the humanitarian nightmare facing the scattered hundreds of thousands of refugees would only compound in agony. He accurately predicted the ruinous corruption and authoritarianism that would come to characterize the PLO, and the encouragement Israel would give in both respects. In a particularly prescient passage, he foresaw the manner in which the basis for territorial negotiations would shift from the pre-1967 border, as envisaged in UNSC Resolution 242, to a vague approximation of the Green Line adjusted by what are presently euphemized as ‘mutually agreed-upon land swaps’ – that is, pre-1967 Israel plus a significant proportion of the existing West Bank settlements:

“[B]y accepting that questions of land and sovereignty are being postponed till ‘final Status negotiations’, the Palestinians have in effect discounted their unilateral and internationally acknowledged claim to the West Bank and Gaza: these have now become ‘disputed territories’. Thus with Palestinian assistance Israel has been awarded at least an equal claim to them.”

Perhaps most arrestingly, he guessed then what far too few of us are able to face even now – that the entire ‘peace process’ has much more to do with the theatre of the ‘process’ than the actual attainment of any ‘peace’:

“[O]n the matter of how, by what specific mechanism, to get from an interim status to a later one, the document is purposefully silent. Does this mean, ominously, that the interim stage may be the final one?”

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Hezbollah shooting stokes Palestinian ire

[Originally posted at NOW]

Relations between Hezbollah and Palestinians set to fray further after checkpoint shootout leaves refugee dead.

Mourners carry Muhammad Samrawi's coffin through the narrow alleys of Burj al-Barajneh camp on Monday (NOW/Alex Rowell)

BURJ AL-BARAJNEH, Lebanon – As hundreds of mourners crammed the narrow, airless street outside the Furqan mosque to attend Muhammad Samrawi’s funeral Monday evening, a mood of anxiety hung palpably in the air. A distressed middle-aged woman, wearing a black abaya and black headscarf, broke the heavy silence, wailing of her hope that the mother of Samrawi’s killer one day feels the grief she is now feeling.

Within seconds, a pair of men pounced on the woman, hissing at her to be quiet. “We don’t want fitna [sectarian strife]!” shouted one to the crowd. Evidently fearing a repeat of the previous night’s demonstrations against Hezbollah – whose gunmen were responsible for Samrawi’s death – the man frantically repeated, “No chants!” When he went on to declare, “We are all with you, Sayyid Hassan,” a young man behind NOW cursed in disgust.

A coffin emerged from the mosque, draped in a Palestinian flag, and the procession began through the winding alleyways of Beirut’s most densely-populated refugee camp, the deafening claps of AK-47 fire reverberating off the graffiti-colored walls. At the cemetery fifteen minutes later, as the men buried the body, the same black-clad woman was still refusing to be hushed by bystanders. “I’m not going to be quiet. Tell me! Are we takfiris too, now?”

Such open expression of resentment against Hezbollah is a rare spectacle from Palestinian refugees, who generally support the party’s muscular anti-Israel stance and, in the case of Burj al-Barajneh residents, live in the heart of the southern suburbs, where the party’s control is at its tightest.

Yet Hezbollah’s killing of 40-year-old Samrawi at a party checkpoint at the camp’s entrance Sunday night has aggravated Palestinians’ feelings of being targeted by Hezbollah’s new security measures, which came into effect after the 15 August car bomb that killed 30 in the nearby Al-Roueiss neighborhood.

“There’s a feeling that the camp is being singled out,” said Ali, a camp resident in his mid-twenties who witnessed the clash. “They stopped the car of the wedding couple, which was at the front of the wedding convoy. There was an exchange of words, a provocation, and then eventually gunfire. If this was the only time this happened, it would be okay, but it’s happened before and it will keep happening. People are angry,” he told NOW.

Ali complained of routine petty harassment of Palestinians at Hezbollah’s new checkpoints. “As soon as you say you’re Palestinian, they pull you over, they search you, just like they do to Syrians. I’ve been pulled over myself at least four times. People as young as fifteen are made to hand over their phones. I thought we were done with racism.”

NOW also met with Hosni Abu Taqa, head of the camp’s Popular Committee, who has been working nonstop since Sunday to limit the fallout from the shooting and mediate an agreement to cool residents’ tempers.

“We understand why there are checkpoints – after all, this is Dahiyeh. And after people started blaming that Palestinian man for the rocket attacks, we obviously couldn’t refuse the security measures,” Abu Taqa told NOW, referring to Ahmad Taha, the Palestinian suspected of attacking Dahiyeh in May with rockets purchased, according to some reports, from Burj al-Barajneh itself.

As such, said Abu Taqa, a deal was struck with Hezbollah on Monday to move the checkpoint further away from the camp’s Haret Hreik entrance. Moreover, the checkpoint at the camp’s airport road entrance is now manned by the Internal Security Forces, not Hezbollah.

However, the Dahiyeh rocket attack is not the only recent source of friction between Hezbollah and Palestinian refugees. In May, residents of the Ain al-Hilweh camp in Sidon burned aid packages received from the party in anger at their intervention in Syria, reportedly saying, “We don’t want assistance soaked in the blood of the Syrian people.” Indeed, Ain al-Hilweh has for years been a hotbed of anti-Hezbollah sentiment, with some of the camp’s Islamist militants believed to have fought against both Hezbollah in Sidon and the regime in Syria. Elsewhere, residents of the Shatila camp in Beirut have been recruited into anti-Hezbollah militias in adjacent Sunni neighborhoods. And, as NOW has previously reported, Hezbollah’s relations with Hamas have reached unprecedented lows, with the latter accused of assisting Syrian rebels in the battle for Qusayr as well as harboring a key suspect in the Dahiyeh rocket attack.

Underlying this rift is a general proliferation of sectarian Islamist ideology among Palestinians in Lebanon, which Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria has accelerated, according to Yezid Sayigh, senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center and a former adviser to the Palestinian delegation to peace talks in the 1990s.

“Sectarian feelings have been building up in the Palestinian camps for a while, originally over the Iraq war and now the Syrian one, and this has been fomented by Arab governments like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Mubarak’s Egypt. As in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world, socioeconomically and politically marginalized communities like Palestinian refugees have moved toward Salafism. This in turn has alienated them from Hezbollah, which was otherwise a party they were close to on several levels. The bonds between them have eroded immensely over a number of years and the Syrian crisis has crystallized that,” Sayigh told NOW.

Moreover, the Syrian conflict has increasingly placed Palestinians in direct opposition to the Assad regime.

“Obviously, lots of Palestinians have joined the fight against the regime in Syria. Just yesterday, families from Damascus’ Yarmouk refugee camp which had taken shelter in Ain al-Hilweh were mourning five dead. So Palestinians here increasingly have close bonds that tie them to the opposition in Syria against the regime, which most Palestinians distrust anyway and have done for a long time.”

Maya Gebeily contributed reporting.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

What happened to Noam Chomsky on Syria?

[Originally posted at NOW]

It seems I owe Noam Chomsky a belated apology. In the days following his summer sojourn to Lebanon, I wrote a rather cross rebuke of his description of Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria as “understandable;” an adjective I thought (and still think) left slightly too much room for interpretation as an endorsement. At the time, some suggested he meant it more in the sense of ‘comprehensible,’ rather than ‘pardonable,’ to which I replied that the linguistics professor wouldn’t have been so evasive in denouncing, say, Saudi intervention in Bahrain.

I now learn, thanks to a subsequent interview dug up by Asaad AbuKhalil, that the optimists were right. Challenged by Syrian playwright Mohammed al-Attar specifically on the word “understandable,” Chomsky immediately backpedalled: “There’s a difference between understanding the reasons for intervening and excusing it. To be clear: nothing can justify Hezbollah’s involvement [in Syria].”

This is certainly strange talk from the man better known for defending Hezbollah’s right to command a private Islamist militia (a stance he iterated publicly after a friendly meeting with Nasrallah in 2006), and more generally lauding the Party of God as the darling of Lebanese secularism.

Indeed, the Attar interview reveals a transformation in Chomsky’s thinking on Syria in several respects. To see how, first rewind to March, when he was advocating straightforward anti-interventionism to The Guardian:

“I tend to think that providing arms is going to escalate the conflict. I think there has to be some kind of negotiated settlement.”

This seemingly remained his view when interviewed by The Daily Star on 14 June:

“The only slim hope that I can see is the Geneva-style negotiated solution […] Any kind of militarization is going to widen that conflict.”

And yet, only two days later, he was telling Attar that should Putin fail to undergo his long-awaited humanitarian epiphany, arming the opposition would only be the natural back-up plan:

“We all want to force Assad to the negotiating table and from there, to resign, but the question is how to achieve this? The first way to do this is to supply the opposition with arms […] The second approach is to go to Geneva with the cooperation of the major powers, including Russia, and force the regime to accept a truce […] I believe you should choose the negotiating track first, and should you fail, then moving to the second option becomes more acceptable.” [Italics added.]

Also remarkably, given the vitriol routinely heaped upon the rebels by the ‘Hands Off Syria’ crowd, the Professor actually spoke quite favorably of the opposition brigades, even comparing them to the victims of Vietnam:

“I don't think the Syrians made a choice [to arm]. It happened in the wake of the Assad regime’s repressive response. Syrians could either have surrendered or taken up arms. To blame them is akin to saying that the Vietnamese made a mistake responding by force when their US-backed government started committing massacres. Sure, the Vietnamese made a choice to arm themselves, but the alternative was [to] accept still more massacres.”

(Amusingly, this comparison infuriated AbuKhalil, who wrote last week of being “quite displeased” with Chomsky’s “woefully ill-informed” analysis, quite out of step with that of “real leftists” such as himself. Like a bad drunk revealing a repressed bigotry, AbuKhalil even lapsed into outright Assadism, scolding Chomsky for omitting to mention “the role of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar in forming armed militant groups […] prior to the eruption of the Syrian uprising.” It must have stung when, asked by Attar what to do with those for whom the whole rebellion is self-evidently an imperialist scam, Chomsky replied: “Just disregard them. They are insignificant.”)

To be clear, Chomsky isn’t about to start scheduling power breakfasts with John McCain. He said last week any military strike on the regime without UN authorization would constitute a “very serious war crime.” Yet it’s clear nonetheless that he’s breaking ranks with most of the pseudo-left on Syria overall, and it’s worth asking why.

One clue may lie in the otherwise-unreported meeting Chomsky had in Beirut, according to Attar, “with a group of independent Syrian media activists, aid workers and individuals active in cultural and economic spheres.” It’s fair to assume they were not discussing the glories of the October War.

Yet even before that, for more than a year there’s been a key divergence between Chomsky and most of his comrades regarding Israel’s view of Assad, and I think it’s this that’s been decisive. While the likes of Ibrahim al-Amin and George Galloway have championed Damascus as Zionism’s worst nightmare (and concurrently smeared the opposition as Likudniks with Qur’ans), Chomsky has seen through this pantomime, correctly noting that Tel Aviv was never as unhappy with Assad as all that, and certainly wouldn’t be thrilled to see what the IDF itself has called “the terrorists” running the show in his place.

Thus freed from the poisonous notion that the rights of Palestinians must be won through the enslavement of Syrians, Chomsky has had the sense to see both peoples as equal victims of oppressors who have a warmer history than either would like to admit.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Prepared for the worst?

[Originally posted at NOW]

A chemical weapons attack in Lebanon would overwhelm already-constrained medical resources.

With most major Western intelligence agencies now firmly convinced the Syrian regime did in fact attack residential suburbs of Damascus with chemical weapons on 21 August, some of Syria’s neighbors have begun taking precautionary steps to safeguard themselves in the event that such weapons of mass destruction are turned upon their own populations.

Foremost among these has been Israel, whose government began distributing gas masks and antidote syringes to the public in the days following the alleged attack. Tel Aviv has also bolstered its deployment of Iron Dome and Patriot missile defense systems in its northern regions, aiming to intercept any potential incoming fire from Syria and/or Lebanon.

At the same time, Turkey has implemented a number of measures along its southern border, including stocking food and gas masks inside designated bunkers in seven key locations, and sending a team of 100 chemical weapons experts to the area to screen for traces of chemical agents.

In Lebanon, by contrast, no comparable precautions have been taken, and the country’s healthcare infrastructure would be ill-prepared to adequately treat victims of any chemical weapons attack, according to industry leaders with whom NOW spoke.

To be sure, security analysts see the chances of chemical weapons use in Lebanon as remote. “I don’t think it would ever happen,” said Riad Kahwaji, founder and CEO of the Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA). Pressed to say, for the sake of argument, where the most likely site of an attack would be if one were to happen, Kahwaji suggested areas deemed to be strongholds of Sunni Islamism, such as the border town of Arsal. “If there was any scenario, it would be in places where the [Syrian regime] claims there are Islamist groups. Right now, in Lebanon, [Arsal] is the area which the regime claims is the stronghold for the Islamists.”

“I wouldn’t go as far [as chemical weapons,] even in a worst-case scenario,” said Dr. Hilal Khashan, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. “The Americans are already going to fight [Syrian President] Assad for what happened in Syria. Now if this happens in Lebanon I think there would be no doubt that the regime in Damascus did it, and [this] could not only bring the end of the Assad regime, but maybe the end of Assad’s life. So I think it is far-fetched.”

Nor does Khashan believe extremist elements among the Syrian opposition are likely to launch chemical weapons attacks on Lebanese targets any time soon.

“Anything is possible, but I don’t know if al-Qaeda has access to chemical weapons. If they did, I think this matter would have been brought up in the past. We would have seen them used in Afghanistan, or Iraq, or Yemen.”

That such attacks are deemed unlikely is fortunate for Lebanon, which has next to no capacity to treat victims of the kind seen in Damascus last month, according to Sleiman Haroun, president of the Lebanese Syndicate of Hospitals.

“We cannot pretend that we could cope with a direct attack by chemical weapons,” Haroun told NOW. “Lebanese hospitals could not handle the kind of numbers” of injured witnessed in Damascus. For one thing, there are simple space constraints.

“We have 1,500 intensive care units in the country. These are 90% occupied in normal times. So if we needed to suddenly hospitalize hundreds of chemical weapons victims, we would have a problem of space,” Haroun told NOW.

Furthermore, there is the matter of technical readiness.

“We have the proper medications and equipment, antidotes, and such, to deal with such attacks. And we have been training hospital personnel [in treating chemical weapons victims] since 2012. We now have around 220 individuals trained in this regard.” Indeed, at least four Hezbollah fighters were reportedly treated in a Beirut hospital for chemical gas encountered in Damascus following the 21 August attack.

“But I must say this is elementary, basic training, and we haven’t conducted any drills. So unfortunately, I cannot say we are ready to treat these kinds of casualties.”

The health ministry could not be reached for comment. Ayad al-Mounzer, spokesperson for the Lebanese Red Cross, declined to comment when contacted by NOW.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Syria suspected in Tripoli bombs

[Originally posted at NOW]

Indictments of five people, including a Syrian intelligence officer, on charges of carrying out last week’s deadly mosque blasts suggest senior Syrian regime involvement, say analysts.

Investigations into last Friday’s deadly twin bomb blasts in the northern city of Tripoli appeared to make significant progress Friday, with Military Prosecutor Saqr Saqr filing charges against five men suspected of planning, preparing, and placing the car bombs outside the crowded mosques. The identities of the suspects, who include a Syrian intelligence officer, point to high-level involvement of the Bashar al-Assad regime, according to analysts NOW spoke with, although a laywer for one of the accused insists the charges are false and politically-motivated.

The two key Lebanese indictees, Sheikhs Hashem Menqara and Ahmad al-Gharib, are respectively the leader and a member of a splinter faction of the Islamic Tawheed Movement, a small Sunni Islamist movement based in Tripoli known for its links to the Syrian regime, although it was once bitterly opposed to Damascus.

Formed in the early 1980s in alliance with Iran and what would become Hezbollah, the militia in fact fought the Syrian occupying forces until the latter’s bloody crackdown in Tripoli in 1985, at which point Menqara was jailed. By the time he was released, 14 years later, Hezbollah and Syria had overcome their onetime enmity, and Menqara “came out as an ally of the Syrian regime and worked alongside them,” according to Sheikh Nabil Rahim, a Tripoli-based member of the Muslim Scholars’ Committee. According to Rahim as well as a senior Tawheed source who asked not to be named, the movement today is divided, with one faction loyal to Menqara and another to Sheikh Bilal Shaaban, son of the founder, Sheikh Saeed Shaaban. The senior Tawheed source, who belonged to the latter faction, firmly denied to NOW that his movement was responsible for Friday’s bombs.

And Menqara’s lawyer, Ibrahim Ayyoubi, also told NOW his client was not guilty. “This case is politicized […] the evidence isn’t there. The sides that are accusing him are known. It’s impossible, completely, entirely, fully, for Sheikh Hashem to do this […] He can’t, as a matter of religion, do anything involving bloodshed.”

Nonetheless, if the accusations should prove true, the case would tally with a history of Syrian-ordered bombings in Lebanon already well-established, said Lebanese American University Professor Imad Salamey.

“Considering the infamous case of Samaha-Mamluk, this sounds like it fits the same pattern,” Salamey told NOW, referring to the 2012 indictment of former Lebanese minister Michel Samaha along with Syrian national security chief General Ali Mamluk on charges of planning a number of terror attacks in Lebanon, particularly in the north.

As for why Syria would order such a bloody attack, Salamey believes the rationale is bound up with the ongoing war in the country.

“The regime is trying to expand its crisis to make it region-wide, linking the fate of regional stability to its survival. This gives it negotiation leverage with the international community, both for itself and its allies in Lebanon.”

Speaking of whom, Salamey argues the attack need not have involved Hezbollah, being the kind of tactic on whose merits Damascus and Hezbollah’s patrons in Tehran would likely disagree at the present moment.

“I personally doubt that Hezbollah approved of this – not because they care much about the people who were in those mosques, but rather because it’s not in Hezbollah’s interests for the security situation in the country to get totally out of hand, and for them to be engulfed in a sectarian struggle without much purpose or benefit for them.”

“So I think there is a relative difference here between the Iranian position and that of Syria. While the Syrian regime is desperate to expand the regional instability […] for Iran, the situation in Lebanon is to its advantage. Hezbollah has the upper hand politically, militarily, and security-wise, and the outbreak of Sunni-Shiite conflict in Lebanon would undermine this,” he told NOW.

Finally, despite Friday’s indictment of another Syrian regime official on charges of plotting attacks on Lebanon, Salamey foresaw no deterioration in Lebanese-Syrian diplomatic relations.

“The foreign policy position of Lebanon is officially tied to [that of] Syria. So Lebanon officially will just turn a blind eye to the situation, as they did with the Samaha-Mamluk issue.”

Maya Gebeily contributed reporting.