Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Jabhat al-Nusra: Now in Lebanon?

[Originally posted at NOW]

The Syrian al-Qaeda franchise leader’s claim to have established a formal presence in Lebanon might not be entirely true, say analysts, but is still ominous nonetheless.

The recent assertion by the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, the official Syrian franchise of al-Qaeda, that the militant group has now formally established a presence in Lebanon appears to have confirmed fears – already fuelled by over a dozen deadly attacks and explosions, including suicide bombings – that the violent extremism engulfing Syria poses a growing danger to its small western neighbor.

Just days before Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani made his claim during his first-ever interview, videos circulated online showing a group calling itself “Jabhat al-Nusra in Lebanon” firing Grad rockets at the northeastern Beqaa town of Hermel, resulting in three injuries. And on Monday, unconfirmed reports emerged of Hezbollah ambushing and killing dozens of Jabhat al-Nusra gunmen in a border region east of Baalbek.

Despite these incidents, however, security analysts told NOW Jabhat al-Nusra’s presence in Lebanon likely took the form of only a few, geographically scattered individuals, rather than a physical base or a unified battalion.

“I doubt that Jabhat al-Nusra, or any terrorist organization, really has an official representation in Lebanon,” said Nizar Abd al-Qader, a former Lebanese army general. “Though I feel that in some places there are probably some individuals who sympathize with it or have been fighting along with them in certain battles, either in Iraq or Syria.”

“This needs to be verified. Jawlani’s statement is not enough,” concurred Riad Kahwaji, founder and CEO of the Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA), who nevertheless added that it would be unsurprising if it turned out to be true.

“Lebanon to start with is a country with a very weak central government. It also borders Syria, and we have today over a million Syrian refugees in Lebanon. So I would not be surprised if a few of them were with Jabhat al-Nusra or sympathized with them.”

One likely source of Jabhat al-Nusra support is the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain al-Hilweh in the southern city of Sidon, according to Abd al-Qader. Sidon was the scene of deadly twin attacks on army checkpoints earlier this month by Lebanese and Palestinian militants. It also saw a two-day-long gun and rocket battle in June between the army and partisans of the Islamist cleric Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, who is himself now rumored to be in Ain al-Hilweh. The camp has been known in the past to host fugitive militants from a variety of Islamist factions, including al-Qaeda affiliates.

Indeed, one prominent Islamist in the camp confirmed to NOW that there exist supporters not just of Jabhat al-Nusra, but of Syrian opposition groups of all stripes, though he too stressed that these were individuals rather than organizations.

“I am certain that we don’t have an official presence of Jabhat al-Nusra in the camp,” said Sheikh Jamal Khattab, leader of the Islamic Mujahid Movement. “No group has pledged allegiance (bay’aa) to Jabhat al-Nusra. But yes, people are sympathetic to them because of their achievements against the regime in Syria. There are even non-Islamists in the camp who support them for this reason.”

Another key reason for this comparative popularity, and the resultant decision by Jabhat al-Nusra to move into Lebanon, is Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria, analysts and Khattab agreed.

“Hezbollah decided to intervene and be a major player in Syria, and therefore Jabhat al-Nusra has expanded and is now spreading into Lebanon. It’s natural to find combatants from Syria getting involved in the Lebanese scene as well. You can’t expect to go to a troubled place and not bring the trouble back home with you,” said Kahwaji.

And perhaps the great concern, said analysts and Khattab, was that this “trouble” would not be easily contained or banished.

“The Tripoli and Dahiyeh and Iranian embassy bombings prove that the battle already started in Lebanon,” said Khattab.

“It is extremely difficult to deal with individuals acting like guided smart missiles. Suicide attackers are elusive, they live among the people, and when their sympathizers are growing, they become even harder to combat or preempt,” said Kahwaji.

“This is what we have right now. This is one of the major negative consequences of Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria.”

Luna Safwan contributed reporting.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

10 surprisingly good things that happened in Lebanon in 2013

[Originally posted at NOW]

In the first of a series of end-of-year reviews, NOW surveys the most unexpectedly positive news to hit Lebanon in 2013.

Click here to view the infographic.

Air strikes kill 76: Just another Sunday in Aleppo

[Originally posted at NOW]

For those joining the likes of onetime US ambassador to Syria Ryan Crocker and former Israeli army chief Dan Halutz in seeing Bashar al-Assad not so much as the conscious and principal architect of Syria’s relentless agony as its earnest and wrongfully neglected ameliorant, it’s perhaps futile to expect actual facts on the ground to be persuasive. (What is there left to say to someone who, fourteen chemical weapons attacks later, can still bring himself to start sentences with “But as bad as Assad is […]”?)

Yet, despite long ago realizing that help isn’t coming, and victory isn’t within reach, Syria’s media activists and citizen journalists continue to document the daily murder of their fellow men, women and children in videos that, if they aren’t put to their rightful use in evidence at The Hague, will at least be a source of much stimulation for future history students.

Today’s example is this clip from Aleppo, showing the aftermath of the regime’s aerial dynamite-barrelling of a residential neighborhood. The scene is typical, if such a word can be used for something so grotesquely abnormal: charred lumps of gore in the shape of children littering the ground; lifeless bodies being dragged from the rubble; dazed survivors choking on the dust generated by the sheer obliteration of entire buildings; and the endless, piercing screams of grief. All in all, AFP reported “at least 76 people, including 28 children” were killed in the series of attacks.

These are the forgotten horrors in the media’s exciting, daring new story, in which we’ve had Syria back-to-front all this time; conned by a duplicitous opposition into a false impression of Assad as (in Seymour Hersh’s smirking phrase) “a ruthless murderer.” Watching Sunday’s carnage, I remembered the Syrian journalist Mohammed Aly Sergie’s unforgettably dark comment on another recent regime atrocity, the butchery of infants with knives in the Qalamoun city of Nabk: “[The victims] seem to be Sunnis killed by conventional weapons, so nothing to worry about.”

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Refugees battling fatal snow storm

[Originally posted at NOW]

“Alexa,” which has already claimed two lives, intensified Friday, adding to the hardships faced by Lebanon’s Syrian refugee population.

Puddles left by rain and snow in the Nahiriyeh camp's mud (NOW/Alex Rowell)
BAR ELIAS, Lebanon – The “Alexa” rain and snow storm, which has already claimed two lives and shut down schools nationwide since it first struck Lebanon Tuesday afternoon, grew yet more intense on Friday, forcing the closure of the arterial Beirut-Damascus highway and covering everything more than 400 meters above sea level in fresh layers of snow.

For the residents of Nahiriyeh, one of an estimated 280 unofficial Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, this means an increasingly desperate battle against the elements over the coming days with few tools at their disposal.

Small snowflakes were already falling when NOW visited the sodden camp Friday morning, trudging through inches of muddy puddles as a stiff and icy wind swept through the agricultural plains. Shivering refugees, some wearing just sandals and a single layer of clothing, came out to greet us before ushering us into their makeshift tents.

“Seriously cold,” replied Muhammad, a 27-year-old father of two from Homs, when NOW asked how the past few days had gone. Muhammad and his wife, who finally fled Syria in April after months of internal displacement, are among the luckier of Nahiriyeh’s residents: below the carpet and thin mattresses that furnish the main room is a solid concrete surface, laid by Muhammad himself using materials supplied by an NGO. Other tents NOW saw in the camp, by contrast, often had floors of gravel or bare mud.

And Muhammad’s tent also houses a metal portable fireplace, complete with piping leading up to the ceiling in lieu of a chimney. Despite the freezing temperatures outside, the heat emitted from the fire makes it possible to remove at least one layer of clothing indoors. “We only put it on when we absolutely have to, otherwise the fuel would soon run out,” he told NOW as he added a thin square of cheap wood to the flames. Though most Nahiriyeh residents have forked out the $50 necessary to buy one of these, they complain that they rarely last long before breaking apart. The fuel, at least, can be sourced free from monthly vouchers distributed by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

In preparation for what they long knew would be a harsh winter, most Nahiriyeh residents have by now installed enough layers of roofing and walls – using everything from scrap canvas fabric to former billboard advertisements to insulating sheets supplied by the Danish Refugee Council – to keep out the vast majority of the snow and rain. “Some water leaked into our kitchen, but nothing so far has come in the main room,” said Muhammad. Nevertheless, a tear in the fabric of one tent NOW saw – pictured above – had let in a thick patch of gritty snow.

And the rain has created a serious problem, indeed a health hazard, outside the tents themselves. The hole in the ground, surrounded by a telephone booth-sized wooden shed, that serves as the sole toilet for the camp’s thirty families has now flooded, leaving a large pool of raw waste congealing just meters from a row of tents. “This is definitely the biggest problem we face today,” said Ahmad, another resident. “We asked the UN a month ago to help us make proper drainage. They said they’d be back soon, but they never came.” UNHCR was not immediately available for comment.

As a consequence, Muhammad said jaundice has become widespread in the camp, and sure enough, NOW saw more than one resident with yellow-tinged eyes. Because many are without valid identity documents, their access to medical care is limited to the sporadic offerings of generally underfunded and overstretched NGOs.

Yet despite these hardships, Nahiriyeh’s residents see little point attempting to relocate.

“Where would we go?” asked Muhammad rhetorically. “If we go back to Syria, the regime will take us. And besides, our neighborhood – Khalidiyeh – like all neighborhoods in Homs, is now completely destroyed.”

Luna Safwan contributed reporting.

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

Al-Manar apology: Protecting business or message from Iran?

[Originally posted at NOW]

The Hezbollah media arm’s apology to Bahrain has outraged many of the Party’s supporters.

In a move met with surprise by Hezbollah’s critics and outrage from some its prominent supporters, the Lebanese Communication Group (LCG), the Party’s media arm, issued an apology to the Kingdom of Bahrain on Saturday for what it said was a lack of “objectivity” in its coverage of Manama’s crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators since 2011.

The move was quickly followed by a statement from Hezbollah that the apology had been made independently of the party’s leadership, whose “position in support of the cause of the oppressed Bahraini people has not changed.”

This, however, fell short of the expectations of certain Party sympathizers, such as Al-Akhbar editor-in-chief Ibrahim al-Amin, who called for those responsible for the apology to “resign from their posts after offering supporters of the resistance an apology, live on the air!” California State University Professor Asaad AbuKhalil wrote that the “despicable apology” had sparked an “overwhelming and pervasive” negative reaction from the Party base, and concurred with Amin that it warranted the dismissal of “someone at Al-Manar,” the television station owned, along with Al-Nour radio, by LCG. The Group’s spokesperson, Ahmad Musulmani, declined to comment to NOW.

Confusion as to why LCG would take such an unpopular and uncharacteristic step has sparked a variety of interpretations, ranging from the strictly commercial to the geopolitical.

One suggestion – reportedly confirmed by Al-Manar Director Abdallah Qassir – is that it was simply a maneuver to protect LCG’s business interests. It was, after all, read out at the general assembly of the Arab States Broadcasting Union (ASBU), a body from which Bahrain has repeatedly attempted to get LCG removed. ASBU members benefit from a number of shared services and resources, as well as preferential rates for certain broadcasting rights. They also gain membership to the World Broadcasting Union. Therefore, it is argued, LCG sought to maintain its ASBU membership by mending ties with Bahrain, leaving Hezbollah to manage the political backlash.

“I don’t think there is [any] reason other than [what] the channel announced; that they were afraid of being expelled from the [ASBU] if they didn’t apologize,” said Nazeeha Saeed, a Bahraini France 24 correspondent who was reportedly tortured by Bahraini authorities during the violent 2011 crackdown.

On the other hand, it has been argued elsewhere that the apology was part of a wider Iranian charm offensive directed both at the West and its regional allies. Recent weeks have seen a comparative warming of relations between Tehran and various Gulf Arab states, with Iranian Foreign Minister Muhammad Javad Zarif paying rare visits to the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman.

“Al-Manar’s decision to issue an apology was surely intended to send out a certain message,” said Mustafa Fahs, a Lebanese commentator and son of the prominent Shiite cleric, Sayyid Hani Fahs. “That message goes to the Gulf in general but specifically Saudi Arabia, and it is that Hezbollah is able to take steps back. It is part of the Iranian pragmatism which can make Hezbollah, one of its main tools, reconsider some of its positions.”

Accordingly, Fahs dismissed the notion that LCG’s decision was taken without Hezbollah’s approval, arguing the Party must have in fact backed the apology.

“Hezbollah is an iron-clad organization, and there are no contradictions within it. Everything they state has already been discussed and planned, and comes out as planned,” he told NOW.

“The management of Al-Manar would never do something like that without approval from the higher [Hezbollah] leadership,” agreed analyst Qassem Qassir.

In which case, argued Fahs, the anger the apology generated among Hezbollah’s supporters reflects their disbelief that the Party would soften its stance against its erstwhile antagonists; a reaction which Fahs likened to Iranian hardliners’ dissatisfaction with the conciliatory rhetoric of new President Hassan Rouhani.

“The breach is not between Hezbollah and Al-Manar, but between Hezbollah and its base. They just cannot seem to absorb what happened. And they don’t seem able to connect what’s happening to the contradictions present inside Iran, between Rouhani and the Revolutionary Guards.”

Luna Safwan contributed reporting.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Asking Aoun a question? Better not be a Muslim

[Originally posted at NOW]

When all else fails in the search for decent late-night TV in Lebanon, you can always rely on an interview with a politician for a hefty fix of whatever genre you’re after – drama, comedy, fantasy, action, crime, and even horror.

I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide in which category the following exchange belongs, from MTV’s interview last night with Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun. It starts when the presenter, Walid Abboud, reads out a question from a viewer with a conspicuously non-Christian-sounding name (at time 1:21:58 in below video).

Here’s an English translation of what transpires:

Abboud: Mustafa al-Maane asks you, “Do you, General, think the Memorandum of Understanding [between the FPM and Hezbollah] distances you from your Christian base and makes you a partner […]”

Aoun: [Interrupts] What’s his name?

Abboud: “[…] in the shedding of Syrian blood?” Mustafa al-Maane.

Aoun: [Pauses, visibly irritated] He has to leave this to the Christians, they have their position, what does he want with it? Besides, who gave him the right to give us a lecture?

Abboud: He’s giving us his question.

Aoun: OK, what’s his position, talking like this?

Abboud: I don’t know.

Aoun: Where is he talking to us from, a front? Is he talking to us from a bank?

Abboud: He reached us on Facebook.

Aoun: This is a fake name.

Abboud: I don’t know where he is.

Aoun: This is a fake Christian.

Abboud: No, he’s Mustafa, he’s not […]

Aoun: His name is [only] Mustafa here.

Abboud: Ah, ok [laughs nervously]. OK, Majdal Aadabe asks you […]

One certainly can’t fault the General for innovation. Faced with a tough question? Don’t just not answer it (that goes without saying). Don’t just speculate baselessly about the possibly dishonorable motives of the questioner, and accuse him of being an agent provocateur. Why stop there? Attack him for his very religion, which, being different to your own, disqualifies him from asking the question in the first place. After all, what business does a Muslim have poking his nose in Christian affairs? (Never mind that the FPM-Hezbollah alliance is one undertaken equally between Christians and Muslims.) What does he think this is, a democracy?

Monday, December 9, 2013

Guessing game begins on presidential elections

[Originally posted at NOW]

Though candidates’ names are now being floated, some believe there may not be elections at all.

With President Michel Suleiman’s six-year term due to expire in just over six months on May 25, 2014, the search for the former army commander’s successor is now underway, amid fears that the country – already without a cabinet – may be heading for prolonged political paralysis, driven by heightened violence both at home and in neighboring Syria.

According to the constitution, parliament will be required to convene some time between March 25 and April 25 to vote in the next president, who by longstanding convention must be a Maronite Christian. Unlike the case in many other countries, presidential candidates do not embark on extensive campaigning processes, pledging policy reforms and debating their rivals. Instead, the president is elected by a two-thirds parliamentary majority, typically after agreement has been reached behind the scenes by political parties and, more often than not, their regional and international patrons.

As such, with the region presently in a state of deep divisions over such issues as the Syrian conflict and the Iranian nuclear agreement, several sources expressed doubt to NOW that consensus could be achieved in time for May 25, in which case there would either be a vacuum or an extension of Suleiman’s term, something the president says he opposes. Both of Suleiman’s predecessors, Emile Lahoud and Elias Hrawi, had their terms extended by three years in controversial circumstances.

“At the moment, the most pressing question is not who will be president, but whether we will have elections at all,” said an adviser to a March 8-aligned minister who requested anonymity as he was not authorized to speak with the press. Serious tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, prominent backers of the March 14 and March 8 blocs, respectively, were the most substantial obstacle facing the process, the source said.

“The problem is nobody is talking to anybody else. There’s no dialogue,” agreed MP Ghassan Moukheiber of the March 8-aligned Change and Reform bloc.

March 14 politicians concurred that regional developments were not conducive to timely elections, arguing the recent US-Iran rapprochement would put March 8 in a position of weakness at the bargaining table, thus giving them an incentive to postpone.

“Traditionally, [elections required] an American-Syrian agreement,” said Future Movement MP Bassem al-Shab. “Syria now is out of the picture. There has to be an American-Iranian agreement now. And the Iranians want to use this opportunity to open up to the Sunni Arab world; they’re not going to pick someone inflammatory. So Hezbollah may find themselves in an [unfavorable] situation.”

Nonetheless, both Shab and Moukheiber said their parties would work earnestly for the holding of elections on time. “Not having elections is a sign of a failed state,” said Shab. “It would be the last nail in the coffin of our democracy.”

Indeed, some political powerbrokers have already initiated a consultation process, with the Future Movement sending a delegation to meet the Maronite Patriarch on November 28. Following the meeting, reports emerged that the Patriarch had floated the following names as a tentative shortlist: Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, Kataeb leader Amin Gemayel, Marada Movement leader MP Suleiman Franjieh, Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh, Lebanese Armed Forces Commander Jean Kahwaji, former minister Jean Obeid, and former minister MP Boutros Harb.

Of those names, Geagea – the leading March 14 Christian politician – has explicitly rejected Aoun and Kahwaji. In an interview with NOW, Geagea confirmed he would put himself forward as a candidate.

Obeid, however, was mentioned by the March 8 ministerial source as the likeliest candidate at present. “He’s the only one of whom it can be said that March 8 will surely accept him, and March 14 can work with him.” A 74-year-old former lawyer and journalist from the Zgharta district, Obeid served in several cabinets under the late Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri during periods of positive relations between Hariri and the Syrian regime. In the run-up to the 2008 elections, during which Obeid was also being contemplated, leaked US embassy cables show that he was considered too close to Damascus by the American ambassador, although the Saudi ambassador described him as “good” and lamented that March 14 did not back his candidacy.

At the same time, others within both March 14 and March 8 told NOW it was still too early to speculate over specific names, as historically the successful candidate only becomes known within the final weeks.

“Serious candidates will not be named at this stage,” said Moukheiber. “Any name being presented now is assumed to be doomed.”

“It ain’t over until the fat lady sings,” agreed Shab.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Speaking on Monocle 24 about Hizbullah commander assassination

I spoke to Monocle 24 radio on Wednesday about the assassination of Hizbullah commander Hassan Laqees. Episode available here (I come on at 05:55).

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Another church scandal in Lebanon

[Originally posted at NOW]

The Catholic Church can breathe a sigh of relief this time: for once, it isn’t them.

Just two months after the Maronite priest Father Mansour Labaki was found guilty by the Vatican of sexually assaulting three minors (and given the typically severe punishment of “prayer and penitence”), the head of a Greek Orthodox monastery in Koura, Archimandrite Panteleimon Farah, has been discharged by Mount Lebanon Bishop George Khodr and sentenced to isolation inside his monastery for committing “practices contrary to Christian life and the monastic calling” – later revealed to be the molestation of youths.

As with Labaki, a crowd of demonstrators quickly congregated to protest the decision and proclaim Farah’s innocence. When LBC’s Dalal Mawad arrived – with permission from the church – to report live from the demonstration, the priest's sympathizers attempted to physically assault her and her cameraman, and were only prevented from doing so by the army. (As the blogger Gino Raidy cannily noted during the Labaki disgrace, these admirers of child rapists are precisely the same people who froth with pious fury when, say, a young Lebanese artist photographs her naked breasts.)

The intimidation of a woman journalist by a mob of religious fanatics is of course a scandal in its own right. Yet the ultimate tragedy is the fate of Farah’s victims themselves, and their families, who will never see the men responsible for their pain brought to real justice. Had it been an ordinary citizen who had molested them, he would have rightly spent a considerable portion of the rest of his life in a prison cell. But give any criminal, no matter how vile, a religious title and he becomes untouchable. Those who defend this notion of shielding wayward clergymen from the law might want to consider how they would feel if it were their children under attack – or, indeed, how they can be sure that it won’t be next time.

Thanks to Christine Sleiman for help with translation.