Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Innocent Syrians pay the price for Aounists' bigotry

[Originally posted at NOW]

“I personally made the plan to encircle Tel az-Zaatar and liberate it […] The siege lasted 52 days, I think, and the Palestinians weren’t leaving […] Eventually, it was getting boring and irritating so they removed the camp. There might have been some transgressions […]”

That was General Michel Aoun’s casual description, as recounted to Al Jazeera, of his role in the famous 1976 siege of the Tel az-Zaatar refugee camp, the end result of which, David Hirst writes in Beware of Small States, was some 3,500 Palestinian men, women and children killed; “between 1,000 and 2,000 of them after the camp had fallen, crushed under bulldozers, shot and hacked to death, or finished off by militiamen.”

It’s the kind of anecdote that casts a perpetually ironic shadow over Aoun’s 2006 Memorandum of Understanding with Hezbollah, and is always worth recalling when you hear the MoU described as some kind of enlightened breakthrough for communal harmony – a “remarkable” example of “Christian[s] and Muslims working together for a united Lebanon,” as a hopelessly hoodwinked Terry Waite put it not long ago.

Indeed, while it’s by no means straightforward to identify Lebanon’s most sectarian Christian party – recall that the dreadful Orthodox Gathering electoral law proposal had enthusiastic, bipartisan Christian support – the Aounists have certainly contended harder than most for the title in recent years (as even the likes of Asaad AbuKhalil are beginning to notice).

As if to seal the deal, on Sunday former telecoms minister Nicolas Sehnaoui and his comrade Ziad Abs – both of whom are often touted even by March 14ers as exemplifying the polished, respectable face of the Free Patriotic Movement – took to the mic to declare the era of playing nice with the Syrian refugees over for good.

Picking up where their colleague, the new Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil last left off (“Syrians already in Lebanon should be deported […] What is happening [is a plot] to change the demography of the country”), Sehnaoui and Abs explained that the refugees’ already-alarming designs on Lebanon had overstepped the final frontier of tolerability. From the “barracks” of their sodden tents, the job-stealing, gun-toting invaders have at last arrived, with their veiled wives and daughters, to – quelle horreur! – the doorsteps of Ashrafieh itself. His proposed solution, reports as-Safir, involves sealing the border, enforcing an 8pm curfew for all Syrians in the area, and creating a nightly security patrol force, “especially in the places Syrians gather."

It’s obviously pointless to note that no evidence exists linking the refugee influx with higher crime, or that the only major act of violence to have occurred in Ashrafieh since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis was the car bombing of the March 14 ally, Wissam al-Hassan – a brazen murder of a senior policemen for which Sehnaoui held no indignant press conference at the time.

Indeed, the tragic thing about this kind of crude incitement is it really works with the constituents (don’t be surprised if, feeling the squeeze, a March 14 Christian tries to one-up Sehnaoui’s act next weekend). But it ought to go without saying it’s also abhorrently inhumane. It isn’t just that sealing the border would be, as rights groups are often forced to repeat, a violation of international law. Innocent Syrians in Lebanon have already suffered far too many unprovoked physical assaults, fuelled by precisely the bigotry and misinformation peddled by Sehnaoui and Abs on Sunday. (Recall, for example, the torching of a camp in December after false allegations of rape, or the secret beatings in October 2012 of Syrian labourers by the army in Ashrafieh itself, as I witnessed with my own eyes while crouching next to NOW’s Raphael Thelen, who first broke the story.) It’s only a matter of time before more xenophobic violence occurs, and when it does, Sehnaoui and his friends will bear a part of the responsibility.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Too little, too late

[Originally posted at NOW]

Lebanon’s ski slopes have finally opened, but the damage to the winter tourism economy has already been done.

Hundreds of Lebanese turned up to ski and snowboard at the Mzaar resort on Sunday, 16 March, 2014 (NOW/Alex Rowell)

KFARDEBIAN, Lebanon – The queues were lengthy and slow-moving at the Mzaar ski resort chairlifts Sunday morning, but NOW heard no complaints as hundreds of Lebanese lined up eager for their first, and possibly last, chance to use the slopes this season.

The snow was spread thin across the mountains, the remnants of a single storm last week that interrupted an otherwise abnormally warm and dry winter. Only some of the pistes were open, with warning poles erected to mark places where bare rock was still exposed. Banners requested skiers and snowboarders avoid going off-piste, where the snow coverage was even patchier (a request that a few more adventurous types nonetheless ignored).

Despite these limitations, many of those who turned up seemed simply relieved to have skied at all in a season most feared would be entirely snowless.

“I’m not going to lie and say the conditions were excellent,” said one experienced skier who preferred not to disclose her name. “But I can’t complain, it’s better to have had something rather than nothing.”

Yet skiers’ disappointment at the very late start to the season (last year, by contrast, the slopes had opened by the end of December) was as nothing compared to the despair felt by the array of business owners dependent on the winter sports sector; from equipment vendors to hoteliers and chalet renters to restaurateurs and nightlife providers in the areas surrounding the resorts. (In addition to Mzaar, Lebanon has five other resorts, two of which – The Cedars and Laqlouq – also opened on Saturday.)

“Of course, there’s [been] an effect,” said Mahboub Salameh, manager of the Winter Sport equipment sale and rental store in Kfardebian. “This season hasn’t gotten us [even] 20% of the work we used to do in other years,” he told NOW.

And even if the snow does last another week or two, said Salameh, it will be of only marginal benefit to him, as business will be limited to rentals, rather than the equipment sales that would ordinarily form the bulk of revenue.

“There are just no sales. People are only renting or getting accessories,” he told NOW. “Selling merchandise happens at the beginning of the season, not at the end.” Even with discount offers of as high as 50%, Salameh said customers are unwilling to hand over hundreds of dollars for what will soon be one-year-old equipment when it can be rented for as little as 25,000LL ($17).

This drought in income saddles businesses like Salameh’s with short-term dues to suppliers that they then struggle to pay.

“All the owners of athletics stores [buy] their merchandise from Europe. They have commitments in banks [and] they can’t pay them now.” This in turn will constrain their ability to bring in brand-new equipment next season, Salameh added.

And the squeeze will be felt by many others apart from equipment sellers, according to Paul Ariss, head of the Syndicate of Owners of Restaurants, Cafes, Nightclubs and Bakeries, and owner of the Peaks Resort in Feytroun, some 15km downhill from Kfardebian.

“The ski season is a major element in sustainable rural development,” Ariss told NOW. “Expansion of housing projects around the resorts will be frozen now; hotels have reduced their personnel; students who rely on weekend work” at resorts will be out of pocket, and “many restaurants did not open in 2014 and might not open at all.”

The cumulative impact of all these losses is yet another significant blow to Lebanon’s tourism industry, which in good years comprises 20-25% of the country’s economy, but since 2011 has “gone into a coma,” according to Ariss.

What with political instability and the related security breakdown, the de facto travel boycott by Gulf Arab consumers, and the dwindling economy and paucity of tourists in general, the new Lebanese cabinet itself acknowledged in its prospective ministerial statement that there had been a “major deterioration” in tourism overall.

And against these serious difficulties, Ariss said this weekend’s opening of the ski slopes will be of very minimal help.

“One or two days of [skiing] operations is like licking a bone.”

Maya Gebeily contributed reporting.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Lebanese, Syrian Brotherhoods unlikely to feel effects of "terror" designation

[Originally posted at NOW]

Saudi’s designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as “terrorist” organization is unlikely to have tangible effects in the Levant.

While much attention has been paid to the deepening rifts between Sunni and Shiite Muslims across the Arab world in recent years, it is the internal battle for the political and ideological soul of Sunni Islam that has seen the fiercest inflammation in the last few days.

In an unprecedented escalation, on 7 March the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia designated as a “terrorist” organization the Muslim Brotherhood, the Qatar-backed movement that advocates an alternative form of Islamic rule to the Wahhabi-Salafist strain established in Riyadh. The move came two days after Saudi, along with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, recalled their ambassadors from Doha; the culmination of months of tensions deriving from Qatar’s continuing support for the Brotherhood.

While the “terrorist” label applies, in theory, to all Brotherhood members worldwide, NOW learned that in practice it is expected to target only those active within Gulf states, and in Egypt, where the new Saudi-backed military government has waged a violent crackdown on the movement since the July 2013 overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood-linked President Muhammad Morsi, going as far as to jail journalists working for Qatar’s Al Jazeera network. Specifically, Brotherhood affiliates in Lebanon and Syria – where they make up a significant minority of the opposition Syrian National Coalition – told NOW they did not anticipate feeling any tangible effects.

“I don’t think there will be any effect on us from the Saudi decision,” said Bassam Hammoud, head for the South region of the Brotherhood-linked al-Jamaa al-Islamiyah party. “It’s clear that this decision started with the bloody coup in Egypt [which Saudi supported] because they were afraid for their chairs and their positions, because the project Muhammad Morsi proposed is one of reformation and change.”

The mood appears to be similar among Brotherhood members in Syria, where questions had initially been raised about the fate of the opposition’s Syrian National Coalition, which is backed by Saudi yet also contains many Brotherhood members who will now be deemed “terrorists” by Riyadh. (As one analyst noted, it’s still unclear whether Brotherhood-affiliated members can even attend the upcoming Coalition general assembly in Cairo, where they are also now legally considered “terrorists”.) Muhammad Sarmini, a Brotherhood partisan and member of the Syrian National Council – which withdrew from the umbrella Coalition in January over disagreements about the Geneva peace talks – told NOW he expected ties with Saudi to remain essentially cordial.

“Even after [the Saudi] decision, there is no change in the relationship between us. The decision doesn’t touch the Syrian Brotherhood directly,” Sarmini told NOW.

One reason for this, according to sources familiar with the Saudi leadership’s thinking, is that Riyadh doesn’t deem the Syrian Brotherhood a security threat in the way it does the Egyptian branch.

“I do not think the decision will adversely affect Saudi allies such as the Coalition because the decision addresses terrorists from the Brotherhood and [especially] Egypt’s Brotherhood,” said Dr. Anwar Eshki, a former Saudi army general and head of the Jeddah-based Middle East Center for Strategic and Legal Studies. The Brotherhood denies accusations of involvement in terrorism.

“The Kingdom deals with the Syrian Brotherhood and respects the Tunisian Brotherhood because they are engaged in political work and have not practiced terrorism […] The Kingdom gives aid to the Syrian Brotherhood for spending on refugees and the needy among the Syrian people,” Eshki told NOW.

Indeed, Sarmini told NOW the Syrian branch of the Brotherhood in particular had long enjoyed warm ties with Riyadh – another factor making an abrupt breach unlikely.

“The relationship between Saudi and the Syrian Brotherhood was a good, positive one, and even a historical one. Saudi embraced members of the Brotherhood in the 1980s and opened the door for them. Even until now […] we appreciate their position and their support toward the Syrian revolution.”

Nevertheless, Sarmini and Hammoud still voiced strong objections to the Saudi decision. “Without a doubt, we consider this position to be one that needs to be reviewed […] We appreciate that Saudi is confronting terrorism, but this is not reconcilable with describing moderate organizations as terrorists,” Sarmini told NOW.

Hammoud was blunter: “This is a reprehensible decision.”

And the move has also faced criticism in certain Arab media, such as the London-based Al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper, whose editorial Sunday said the decision benefits the Iranian, Syrian, and Iraqi leaderships, and “identifies Saudi, objectively, with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria.” Indeed, NOW asked Dr. Eshki why he thought Saudi had designated the Brotherhood as “terrorists” before doing the same to Hezbollah, the Iran-backed militant party often considered Riyadh’s preeminent foe in the Levant. He declined to answer directly, telling NOW instead:

“From the womb of the Brotherhood came al-Qaeda, and from the womb of the Brotherhood occurred most of the terrorist acts in the Kingdom.”

Ana Maria Luca and Maya Gebeily contributed reporting.

[Infograph] Tracking Lebanon's bomb suspects

[Originally posted at NOW, with accompanying infograph]

As a complement to the infograph illustrating the series of vehicle explosions to have struck Lebanon since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis, NOW turns below to profiling the key individuals suspected of involvement.

To date, suspects have been identified by Lebanese officials for nine of the eighteen vehicle explosions, from the 9 July, 2013, Bir al-Abed car bomb to the 19 February, 2014, suicide bombings of the Iranian Cultural Chancellery. They range from Lebanese and Palestinian followers of fugitive Sidon cleric Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir to Syrian intelligence operatives and their local proxies to internationally-wanted Saudi jihadists.

Of the remaining nine attacks for whom no individual suspects have been named, four have been claimed by Islamist groups, and five – including the assassinations of police intelligence chief Wissam al-Hassan and former minister Muhammad Shatah – have not been claimed by anyone.

The list may not be comprehensive, and covers only those accused of involvement in specific vehicle explosion attacks. It does not, therefore, include individuals arrested on generic charges of "terror" or of merely belonging to militant factions. There is a degree of overlap between the groups – both the Abbas-Atrash ring and the Iranian embassy team, for example, include Abdallah Azzam Brigades members.

As with the infograph, the list will be updated when new data emerge.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Malnourished refugees facing death in Lebanon

[Originally posted at NOW]

Nearly 2,000 Syrian children under five are at risk of death from malnutrition, a number that UNICEF says could rise rapidly.

9-month-old Ibrahim al-Jarudi has been diagnosed with what the World Health Organization calls "severe acute malnutrition" (NOW/Alex Rowell)

QOB ELIAS, Lebanon: With his frail limbs, gaunt cheeks, and vacant look in his brown eyes, Ibrahim al-Jarudi doesn’t look like most other 9-month-olds. Sitting on the floor of the single room which he and his family of eight share in an open-air concrete building in the central Beqaa Valley, he makes little noise or motion as aid workers from the International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) measure the circumference of his upper arm, which has withered down to the breadth of his wrist.

“Still SAM,” says one to her colleague, using the acronym for severe acute malnutrition, the most dangerous kind of malnourishment defined by the World Health Organization. For a while, Ibrahim was suffering only moderate acute malnutrition (MAM), the aid workers told NOW. But a recent fever and diarrhea onset has caused him to relapse to SAM, which the WHO estimates would put his chances of dying at between 30% and 50% if left untreated.

Ibrahim’s is a relatively new but fast-growing condition among Syrian refugee infants in Lebanon, nearly 2,000 of whom under the age of five are now “at risk of dying” from malnutrition, according to a UNICEF statement last week. A handful have, in fact, already died – perhaps “four or five,” NOW was told by Linda Shaker-Berbari, Lebanon Country Representative at IOCC, which is among UNICEF’s leading partners in tackling the issue. Adding the SAM cases to the more than 8,000 diagnosed with MAM, there are thus over 10,000 acutely malnourished Syrian infants in the country (around 6% of the under-five refugee population), with the prevalence of SAM almost doubling since 2012, according to data sent to NOW by UNICEF. Unprecedented as this is, owing to “aggravating factors” – not least the continuing influx of refugees into Lebanon – UNICEF warns the situation still has the potential to further “deteriorate rapidly.”

As a result, UNICEF and its partners are redoubling their efforts to combat the threat, by increased detection, treatment, and awareness of its causes. At Qob Elias’ public clinic Tuesday, NOW watched as IOCC workers screened some of the dozens of Syrian children brought in by anxious mothers living nearby (often in squalid, makeshift campsites). As well as the upper arm circumference measurement, which detects muscle “wasting,” they pressed the children’s feet with their thumbs to check for oedema, a form of swelling caused by mineral and protein deficiency.

Some children were fine. Others looked fine, but on inspection turned out to have MAM (one of the dangers is parents often don’t realize their children are malnourished until they’re professionally screened). Others, however, were obviously undernourished: their skeletal arms no thicker than broomsticks; their ankles plump with retained fluid.

Immediately afterward, the IOCC workers then measured the children’s height and weight to detect possible “stunting,” a lag in physical growth that, if not quickly addressed, can be irreversible. While not in itself fatal, stunting is still a “serious” form of malnourishment, Shaker-Berbari told NOW. It is also much more prevalent than acute malnutrition, afflicting 17% of refugees under five as of November 2013 (up from 12% in September 2012), according to data sent by UNICEF.

Once diagnosed with acute malnutrition, the children are prescribed a course of intensely nutritious dietary supplements, known as ready-to-use therapeutic foods (RUTFs), which come in the form of a kind of paste that can be eaten straight out the sachet. These are provided free of charge, paid for by UNICEF and UNHCR. The children’s parents are then asked to return once a week for a check-up, during which the full screening process is repeated, and the treatment amended if necessary.

Supplements by themselves, however, cannot fully solve the problem. As with Ibrahim, illness such as diarrhea can quickly turn a MAM case into a SAM one. And illnesses are easily picked up in the harsh environment of a tent settlement or overcrowded building, where “water and sanitary conditions, shelter conditions, hygiene, and access to healthcare” are gravely inadequate, said Shaker-Berbari.

Yet, aside from the immediate factor of illness, perhaps the single most important underlying cause of malnutrition is a lack of breastfeeding, according to Shaker-Berbari. “Breastfeeding is lifesaving,” she tells NOW, lamenting the “very, very dangerous” practice of refugee mothers using infant formula as a substitute. The problem, IOCC workers in the clinic explained to NOW, is not merely that breast milk is nutritionally superior – particularly in the days immediately after birth, when it contains vital antibodies – but that, without access to clean water and sterilized appliances, refugees using infant formula are recklessly (if unknowingly) putting their children’s health at potentially grave risk.

Indeed, it may well have been for this reason that Ibrahim relapsed to SAM. As his father, Muhammad, passed traditional ceramic cups of coffee around the room, one IOCC worker politely inquired about a milk bottle plainly visible on a nearby table. With some embarrassment, Ibrahim’s mother confessed that though she had started breastfeeding him, she had continued to supplement this with formula. “We’ve told you before, this is the biggest mistake you can make,” said the IOCC worker, urging her to attend an upcoming breastfeeding awareness session at the clinic.

Of course, fueling both the illness and feeding problems is the simple poverty that is also an underlying cause of malnutrition, as well as the root of so much of refugees’ hardship in general. Muhammad insists that the rest of the family have enough food to get by for now, even if they can only afford to eat meat once a week. But this too could soon take a turn for the worse, as the mounting number of adult refugees combines with Lebanon’s declining economy.

“It’s been three months now that I haven’t been able to find work,” Muhammad says. “This room costs $250 a month, and I haven’t been able to pay the landlord for two months.”

“I’ve tried everything, even applying for a visa to go to Germany, but nothing is working out. What am I to do now?”