Sunday, March 1, 2015

ISIS, Nusra and "Khorasan": What's the difference?

[Originally posted at NOW]

NOW profiles the various jihadists now under American bombardment in both Iraq and Syria.

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) jihadist faction – or “The Islamic State,” as it has called itself since declaring the establishment of a caliphate spanning eastern Syria and western Iraq in June – has been the target of over 190 American air strikes on the Iraqi side of the border since US President Barack Obama launched what has officially become a campaign to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the group on 7 August.

On Tuesday, that campaign expanded for the first time into Syria, where a coalition led by the US, but also including five Arab states, has since launched aerial and naval missile attacks on over 16 ISIS positions at the time of writing. In a surprise additional move, the US also carried out 8 strikes on what the military called the “Khorasan Group,” a shadowy entity said to be an external Al-Qaeda cell embedded among units of Al-Qaeda’s official Syrian subsidiary, Jabhat al-Nusra. Despite the US’s implied distinction between so-called “Khorasan” members and regular Nusra Front fighters, it’s unclear to what extent that has held up on the ground, with some reports citing Syrian rebels and activists to the effect that the sites hit were well-known Nusra bases.

In the hopes of mitigating some of the inevitable confusion between the three groups, NOW spoke to analysts and experts to clarify their various similarities and differences.

ISIS v Nusra

The broad outlines of the ISIS phenomenon have been made familiar to millions in recent months, as the group’s atrocities and dramatic territorial advances have dominated headlines around the world. With just a few hundred men, they chased an estimated 30,000 troops out of Iraq’s northwestern Ninawa Province in a matter of hours in June. They’ve released gruesome footage of their fighters casually beheading Western civilian hostages, each time revealing another captive next in line to be murdered. Other broadcasts include graphic videos of wild killing sprees carried out on the streets of Iraq, and mass executions of prisoners of war. As a result of their excommunication from Al-Qaeda by Ayman al-Zawahiri, in February, they are often described as the jihadists “too extreme” even for the masterminds of the 9/11 attacks.

But is Nusra any different? Strange as the notion of ‘moderate’ jihadism may seem, it is sometimes argued that the Al-Qaeda franchise is at least comparatively pragmatic, and there is ostensibly some evidence to support the case. In contrast to ISIS’s beheading of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, in August Nusra freed an American journalist, Peter Curtis, whom they had held for nearly two years. In early September, the group also freed 45 Fijian UN peacekeepers taken hostage in the Syrian Golan Heights.

And in Lebanon, whereas ISIS beheaded two Lebanese soldiers captured in recent clashes with the Lebanese Army in the border town of Arsal, Nusra freed five captives it had itself taken during the battle, though it has since shot one dead and threatened to kill a second.

Analysts told NOW the key distinction between the two factions was one of method – as opposed to ideology or long-term objectives – with Nusra seeking to maintain positive relations with other rebel groups and local actors, whereas ISIS seems almost to relish conflict with them.

“In Syria, they have had two very different approaches,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and author of Bin Laden’s Legacy: Why We’re Still Losing the War on Terror. “ISIS has never played well with others. Prior to its dramatic advance into Iraq in June, it basically exclusively took territory from other rebel groups, as opposed to from Assad. Whereas, on the other hand, Nusra was very well embedded with other rebel groups.”

In part, Gartenstein-Ross told NOW, this was a result of “lessons learned” from Al-Qaeda’s prior experience in Iraq, where it lost ground after 2007 by “alienating” its erstwhile allies. While Al-Qaeda concluded it “needed to work better with other people […] ISIS drew a very different lesson.”

As far as ideology goes, “there’s not an enormous amount of difference,” said Gartenstein-Ross. “They’re different tactically and strategically, but ideologically Nusra is part of Al-Qaeda, and Al-Qaeda is dedicated to reestablishing the caliphate. They reject the legitimacy of ISIS’s caliphate declaration, but if you look at their goals and eschatology, they’re really on the same page.”

The Khorasan wildcard

The general perception of ISIS as the world’s most dangerous jihadist outfit has been complicated recently by US intelligence claims of the existence of an external, elite Al-Qaeda cell sent personally by Zawahiri to join Nusra militants inside Syria, not to fight the Bashar al-Assad regime, but to plot spectacular, mass-casualty attacks on civilian targets in the West. This cell, dubbed the “Khorasan Group” in reference to the antiquated name used by Al-Qaeda for the region in which its members were previously based (including Iran, where the cell’s Kuwaiti leader, Muhsin al-Fadhli, was quietly hosted by the ruling regime) was said by Washington to pose a more “direct” threat to the West than ISIS. Or, rather, it was, until the “individuals plotting and planning” the attacks were “eliminated” Tuesday by US air strikes, in the words of Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby.

While American claims about the “Khorasan Group” are impossible to verify independently, Gartenstein-Ross told NOW they tallied with previous activities undertaken elsewhere by Al-Qaeda, such as in Yemen, where the Saudi bomb maker and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) member Ibrahim al-Asiri is believed to have developed the explosives used in numerous operations, such as the attempted Christmas Day 2009 blowing up of a passenger jet in Detroit.

At the same time, there is skepticism about the veracity of the US’s claims regarding “Khorasan” among some within the Syrian opposition, who see them as a pretext to weaken Nusra itself, which was designated a “terrorist” entity by the US in 2012.

“We have no idea who these people are,” said Qurai Zakarya, an opposition activist and survivor of the Assad regime’s August 2013 chemical weapons attack outside Damascus. “Throughout all my work in Syria, I never heard about them. And other activists are saying the same.”

“Ever since we heard about them in the news, we’ve been trying to find out who they are and so far we have no answer. Nobody knows anything about them.”

Myra Abdallah contributed reporting.

Racist graffiti in Ashrafieh: "The Syrian is your enemy"

[Originally posted at NOW, with photo slideshow]

“Leave, leave, O Syrian.” “Beware your enemy, the Syrian is your enemy.” These were some of the slogans disfiguring the walls of Beirut’s Ashrafieh neighborhood this morning, sprayed on last night by a group calling itself “The Soldiers of Christ.” In what they presumably imagined was a witty play on the Islamist “takbeer” cry (meaning “Say ‘Allahu akbar’”), they also stenciled crucifixes with the caption “tasleeb,” the word for the act of crossing oneself.

After a series of weeks in which Syrian civilians in Lebanon have been shot at and stabbed, tied up and publicly beaten, harassed by armed ‘patrolmen’, and abused by soldiers (by the army’s own admission), this kind of ethno-sectarian bigotry is, sadly, nothing new. Still, it’s a depressing omen for Ashrafieh, ostensibly one of the freest and most enlightened parts of Beirut, home to the likes of Elias Khoury and the late Samir Kassir, where artists, journalists and students congregate nightly over food and drink.

It’s also an alarming one, and not only for Syrians. Are these “soldiers of Christ” not content with sitting out the Sunni-Shiite war presently turning city after city across the region to rubble? Do they really want to pull themselves and their remaining co-religionists into the furnace? Or haven’t they seen the recent increase in attention paid by jihadists to Lebanon’s Christians, and their repeated promises of retribution for any attacks on Syrian innocents? Rarely does a single sentence of graffiti combine so much loathsome fanaticism with such irresponsible stupidity.

ISIS vs Hezbollah in numbers

[Originally posted at NOW, with infographic]

The jihadist paramilitary group Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which declared itself ruler of its own state in June after expanding its eastern Syrian stronghold into western Iraq, was described in August by US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel as "beyond just a terrorist group […] beyond anything that we've seen." Below, NOW puts this judgment in context by comparing ISIS's vital statistics to those of another formidable Islamist militia; Lebanon's Hezbollah.

As the data show, ISIS is believed to have more fighters than Hezbollah, and to enjoy more abundant finances. This is in part a result of the vast territory it controls – perhaps 10 times as much as Hezbollah does – in which over half a dozen lucrative oil fields are at its disposal.

On the other hand, Hezbollah has a much wider geographical reach, believed to be operating – whether militarily or financially – in over 45 countries. It is also more battle-hardened, having fought up to seven conventional armies in its three decades of existence. Moreover, while it controls less territory than ISIS, it is nonetheless "important to remember," said analyst Phillip Smyth, that the areas it does hold are of great "strategic" significance.

Stop the outrageous Saddam nostalgia

[Originally posted at NOW]

The man was responsible for more deaths than the Syrian and Lebanese civil wars put together.

It’s a curious fact that criticism of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein quite often gets coupled with the claim that his reign in Iraq was not as unpleasant as has generally been made out. This has been true more or less since day one of the intervention; no one yet has topped the breathtaking shamelessness and crudity of Michael Moore’s 2004 depiction in Fahrenheit 9/11 of Saddam’s Iraq as literally a garden of children and kites.

But similar, if occasionally better-dressed variants of the theme have long been making their way into respectable publications, and increasingly so as prospects of Western intervention in the region have revived since Bashar al-Assad’s crossing last summer of Obama’s red-line-that-wasn’t. In June, the Independent disgraced itself with a piece saying “life wasn’t so bad at all” for Iraqis in the 1980s. Later the same month, Anne-Marie Slaughter got away with saying in the New York Times that Saddam was “far less brutal” than Assad. And this week, the Washington Post published an op-ed by the son of a Saddam-era Iraqi Air Force member fondly remembering the pre-1990 “Iraq I loved and was proud of,” which was a “modern, Westernized and secular” marvel that only turned sour after the Americans prevented the natural progression of Baathist enlightenment into Kuwait.

What were some of the highlights of this golden age? A book written in 1993 called Cruelty and Silence by the Iraqi intellectual Kanan Makiya recalls a few. Here are excerpts from a conversation Makiya had with a Kurdish Iraqi boy, describing one memorable encounter with Saddam’s Westernized modernity in 1988:

Makiya: When they opened the door of the lorry, what was the first thing you saw?

Taimour Abdallah: The first thing I saw was the pits, dug and ready.


M: They pushed you directly off the truck into the pit?

A: Yes.


M: How many people were put inside?

A: One pit to every truck.

M: And how many people were in a truck?

A: About one hundred people.


M: Soldiers were surrounding the whole grave?

A: Yes. […] There were two soldiers […] We sat in the pit and they fired bullets at us.


M: The soldier who pushed you back into the hole, was he the one who shot you the second time?

A: Yes. This soldier shot me again after he received the order from the officer who was standing beside the pit.


M: What about the rest of the people, were they all dead?

A: They didn’t make noises.

Abdallah is the only known survivor of Saddam’s systematic extermination of Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980s – a campaign officially described in government documents as “the heroic operations of the Anfal,” a Quranic term for war booty (Saddam’s “secularism” often took such strange forms, like when he introduced amputation and branding with hot irons as punishments for theft, citing the Islamic shari`a as justification). Along with every member not just of his family but of his entire village, Abdallah had been rounded up by the army and transported to the desert near the Saudi border, where firing squads and mass graves awaited. By extraordinary chance, the two bullets he received failed to kill him, and he managed to flee under the cover of dark to a nearby Bedouin camp, where he was sheltered and eventually reunited with Kurdish relatives. He was 12 years old.

What happened to Abdallah’s village happened to over 1,200 villages in Iraqi Kurdistan throughout 1988. We’ll never know the total number of Kurds thus extirpated with certainty, but the regime’s own “Chemical” Ali Hassan al-Majeed (whose nickname came from his enthusiastic use of the weapons of mass destruction Iraq is supposed never to have had) himself admitted to a figure of 100,000. The more likely number of 180,000, based on Kurdish sources, is now generally accepted (Patrick Cockburn, for example, whose decades of reporting from Iraq have been consistently critical of Western policy, considers it reliable). As a rule of thumb, when it comes to Saddam, the facts are usually far worse than initially believed.

Of course, 1988 was only one of 24 years of Saddam’s rule, which also featured the killing of some 150,000 Shiites in 1991, and well over 100,000 Iranians from 1980-88, and over 1,000 Kuwaitis in 1990, and untold thousands of Iraqis of every sect and ethnicity for any number of reasons at one point or another. How bad was Saddam? Add the death toll of the current Syrian war to that of the 15-year-long Lebanese civil war, and throw in Hafez al-Assad’s massacre at Hama in 1982, and you’re still nowhere close to how many he killed.

Not that statistics can begin to do justice to the complete, unique gruesomeness of this regime: the state-employed rapists (“violation of women’s honor” was the exact job description used in the government paperwork, according to documents seen by Makiya), who would often carry out their work in the presence of their victims’ relatives, sometimes in designated ‘rape rooms’ of prisons; the burning alive of children in front of parents as interrogation technique; the imprisonment and torture of total innocents as deliberate policy; the ‘Victory Arch’ Saddam had built in Baghdad using fifty-foot replicas of his own forearms, carrying 24-ton stainless steel swords above 5,000 genuine bullet-ridden and blood-stained Iranian helmets. Quite a legacy to “love” and be “proud of,” and quite a state of affairs to be remembered with nostalgia in the finest newspapers of the ‘free world’.

The dangerous absurdity of Lebanon's refugee camp decision

[Originally posted at NOW]

See if you can follow the logic: the Lebanese government is now concerned that its 1.2m Syrian refugee population has become vulnerable to infiltration – or has indeed already been infiltrated – by extremist Islamist groups. At the back of its and everyone else’s mind is the battle last month between Islamic State (IS) jihadists and the Lebanese army in the border town of Arsal, where gunmen were reported to have emerged from the makeshift camps housing thousands of refugees in the adjacent and otherwise barren Wadi Hmayyed region, beyond the final Lebanese army checkpoint but before the first Syrian one.

To mitigate this worry, the government now plans to move refugees currently scattered across the developed areas of the country, where their activities are closely monitored by security and intelligence forces, to precisely the same jihadist safe haven from which IS launched its August attack.

Citing “social and security concerns,” Social Affairs Minister Rashid Derbas told Annahar today a decision has been made to “establish experimental camps on Lebanese state territories [in areas] between the [Lebanese-Syrian] border.” This is essentially the same proposal that’s already been mulled several times in the past, and has been thoroughly criticized by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). It’s worth revisiting what they had to say about it in May:

“In our experience camps that are built on border areas can be transformed into places where armed activities take place […] The border has witnessed a good number of security incidents over the past three years and the Lebanese government does not have a permanent presence [there] to oversee the security situation.”

In other words, moving the people you suspect of harboring jihadist sympathies to a lawless no-man’s-land crawling with jihadists might not be a surefire formula for stability. And who, incidentally, is to protect the refugees, 80% of whom are women and children, from the gunmen? For months, Lebanon was unable to provide security for thousands of its own citizens in the border town of Tfeil. How far will it be willing to go to protect Syrians, who it now regards as IS fifth columnists? Will it enlist the help of the Syrian army? Hezbollah? Anyone who has spent five minutes with a Syrian refugee knows how they’d react to that notion.

On a more pedestrian note, as UNHCR also pointed out, who will provide the infrastructure? Lebanese citizens themselves in the east Beqaa are lucky to get 3 hours a day of electricity. Water is a similar lottery. Derbas told Annahar the money would come from “Arab and international” sources. Now might be the time to mention that UNHCR, three years into the Syrian refugee crisis, has only managed to raise 36% of its pledged funding. And, again, we’re talking about a territory contiguous with the most violent war zone on earth today. What happens if the security situation doesn’t permit aid workers access?

That the Syrian refugee crisis, like the wider Syrian conflict itself, has had profound repercussions on Lebanon is beyond doubt. Sadly, this plan seems less an earnest effort to resolve them than an ill-conceived capitulation to the irrational, and increasingly xenophobic, passions of the street.

Anti-Syrian pogroms point to darker future in Lebanon

[Originally posted at NOW]

With refugees now fearing for their lives, Lebanon is edging closer to breakdown.

Abu Gaby’s life hasn’t been the same since Saturday evening. He’s not sleeping properly. He’s changed his daily routine – no longer using taxis after dark; “taking precautions,” as he puts it, “that I never thought about before.” His work as a filmmaker has ground to a halt. “I’m unable to focus on anything,” he says. “I’m thinking only about how I can stay safe in this situation.”

As NOW’s Rayan Majed reported Tuesday, Abu Gaby (a pseudonym) was one of dozens of Syrian refugees physically assaulted across Lebanon Saturday after news broke of the execution of a second Lebanese Army captive by Islamic State (ISIS) militants. Hearing his Syrian accent in a shared Beirut taxi, a passenger beside him asked him his name. He replied with a fake Armenian one, hoping it would spare him. Brandishing a knife, the passenger then grabbed him by the collar and shook him, saying, “I’m letting you go [only] because you’re Armenian.”

Under the circumstances, Abu Gaby was fortunate: many Syrians suffered far worse in the ethno-sectarian pogroms that ensued from Beirut to the south coast to the eastern Beqaa Valley. Pictures soon surfaced of Syrian refugees and laborers lying on the streets being kicked and beaten by mobs. In one case, residents in Baalbek tied up two men and left them as human roadblocks facing the traffic at the town’s entrance. Meanwhile, gunmen set up flying checkpoints on several Beqaa roads, checking motorists’ IDs and detaining Sunni Muslim passengers, leading one columnist to dub it another “Black Saturday,” in reference to an infamous 1975 massacre of motorists at militia checkpoints based on sectarian identity. Notices appeared on walls in numerous neighborhoods demanding the departure of all Syrians within hours, with one in Beirut’s Zoqaq al-Blat threatening those not complying with “slaughter or torture until death.” Tents in makeshift refugee camps were torched, prompting hundreds of families in Shiite-majority areas of the Beqaa to pack up their tents and flee to Sunni regions.

A sign of how frightened those doubly-displaced refugees are is the lengths they’ve gone to conceal themselves. In Al-Rahma Camp, the largest Syrian refugee settlement in the central Beqaa’s Bar Elias, a representative of the charity running the camp told NOW Tuesday there were no new arrivals as a result of Saturday’s attacks. “I heard they went to Jeb Jenin,” he said. A half-hour drive later, a camp official in Jeb Jenin assured NOW they weren’t there, either. “I have no information on their whereabouts,” he said, echoing what the UNHCR, the Ministry of Social Affairs, the municipalities of three major refugee-hosting towns in the Beqaa, and Human Rights Watch had all said as well. “You have to understand, they’re terrified,” said Nabil al-Halabi, a lawyer and activist who runs a local human rights NGO, LIFE, working with Syrian refugees. “They’re not willing to work with the authorities. They’re not even telling us where they are.”

Indeed, with reports Wednesday that the Lebanese Army itself has begun dismantling camps in the southern Tyre region, refugees’ distrust of Lebanese state institutions may yet grow more pronounced. “I never thought this could happen to me in Lebanon,” Abu Gaby told NOW of his Saturday evening experience. “I had the same feeling as when I was arrested by Syrian intelligence in Damascus. In Lebanon, I now have the same level of fear and worry as I had in Syria.”

Should these events lead to further and long-lasting deteriorations in relations between Syrian refugees and their Lebanese hosts, there could be grave social and political repercussions, analysts told NOW.

“What happened on Saturday is a first sign potentially heralding the breakdown of Lebanese society,” said Hussam Itani, columnist at Al-Hayat newspaper. “It’s very dangerous. We’re in a situation of total disconnection between the government, civil society, and all the middle grounds that could unite the Lebanese people.”

The underlying cause of this crisis, argued Itani, was repeated sectarian and political incitement against Syrian refugees by Lebanese political parties, particularly within the Hezbollah-led March 8 bloc.

“These incidents were not spontaneous. They are the result of three-and-a-half years of a discourse opposing the Syrian uprising and the Syrian people’s right to decide their fate, and categorizing the Syrian people as supporters of the Islamic State and opponents of the so-called ‘resistance.’ This created a tense atmosphere that only needed one reason to explode.”

An especial concern for the longer run is the potential future militarization of some Syrian refugees, emulating the history of Lebanon’s Palestinian refugees in the 1960s. To be sure, 80% of Syrian refugees in Lebanon are women and children. But the worse the situation becomes, the greater is the chance of a fringe minority developing a desire to take up arms, says Itani.

“This is an important question that very few are thinking of,” he told NOW. “If things get worse, the refugees’ reaction could turn dangerous, and it could turn uncontrollable. The lack of organization of the refugees makes them vulnerable to political manipulation.”

“They might today be occupied with their daily life problems, but this doesn’t mean they might not one day join the political battlefield and defend their interests.”

Myra Abdallah contributed reporting.

Israel makes largest West Bank land grab in 30 years

[Originally posted at NOW]

Sometimes it takes the placid, sterile dispassion of the BBC to fully ram home the amazing arrogance and malevolence of the Israeli government.

Describing Tel Aviv’s declared seizure of – sorry, “decision to appropriate” – more West Bank territory than it’s snatched in one go for three decades, the BBC staff writer says with serene insouciance that, “The military-run local administration said it was a response to the kidnapping and killing of three Jewish teenagers in the area in June.”

More or less everything one needs to know about Israel today is contained in that sentence. In case the full implications aren’t immediately clear: by way of response to the murder of three teens from families already settled on the West Bank (“in the area”), Israel will add five entire Palestinian villages, along with their farmland, to its already vast takings from what remains of non-Israeli land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan. (Having taken them, of course, it will then raze them to make way for more theocratic settler-colonies; in this case an extension to the Gevaot settlement.) It’s as if Mexico, in response to the killing of Mexicans living illegally in the USA, were to permanently award itself a portion of Texas.

What, for that matter, did the United States, the honest broker of the peace process, have to say about it? Surely, after all, there would be outrage were the Palestinian Authority, following the murder of 16-year-old Muhammad Abu Khdeir in occupied East Jerusalem, to react by annexing five West Jerusalem neighborhoods. Condemnation, if that’s the word, came from the State Department in the form of a description of the move as “counterproductive” to the two-state solution – a statement of the obvious on par with saying fire is counterproductive to the treatment of burns. Evidently missed by the State Department was Netanyahu’s statement in July that he had “always” opposed the two-state solution; that “to pull out of Judea and Samaria [Bible-speak for the West Bank]” was something that “cannot” be contemplated “under any agreement.” Far from giving the Israeli government pause, in other words, the idea that the two-state solution has been further derailed will have been received in Tel Aviv with warm gratification.

Brits Abroad

[Originally posted at NOW]

What drove an affluent British rapper to behead civilians in Syria?

On July1 , 2013, the 21-year-old British rapper Abd al-Majid Abd al-Bari, better known to his small but growing fan base as “L Jinny,” declared on Facebook that he had produced his final track. “I have left everything,” he said, “for the sake of Allah.”

Thirteen months later, he was posting photos on Twitter of himself holding severed heads in Syria, breezily captioned, “Chillin’ with my homie or what’s left of him.”

And, earlier this week, he made international headlines when he was reportedly identified by British intelligence as the London-accented Islamic State jihadist speaking in the videotaped beheading of American journalist James Foley.

How the evidently talented resident of an estimated £1m ($1.7m) home in London’s elegant Maida Vale district, whose songs had been aired on BBC radio, came to be a member of what US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recently described as “a terrorist group […] beyond anything that we’ve seen [before]” appears to be a mystery even to what were formerly his closest friends.

“Can’t believe the dude I lived with for 26 months is now the worlds [sic] most wanted man. What the fuck,” said fellow rapper Proverbz, who had been a member of a three-man group with Bari known as Black Triangle. “People get lost so quickly. So easily. Violence only begets more violence. But still the blood flows and the world never learns. What happened to peace and love. The world needs to smoke more weed and take less notice of old books,” he added.

Asked by NOW why he thought Bari gave up his London life to fight in Syria, the rapper Tabanacle – who was Black Triangle’s third member, and Bari’s collaborator on his final song – would say no more than, “The only man who could help you understand that would be the man L Jinny himself.” NOW contacted more than 10 other artists who had performed alongside Bari, all of whom either declined to comment or did not respond.

Analysts familiar with Bari’s progression from rapper to jihadist described an ambitious but insecure character deeply affected by the figure of his father, Adel Abd al-Bari, an Egyptian arrested in 1998 on suspicion of involvement in the al-Qaeda bombings of American embassies in east Africa the same year. In his song, ‘The Beginning,’ Bari says, “Give me the pride and the honor like my father. I swear the day they came and took my dad, I could have killed a cop or two and I wouldn’t look back. Imagine back then I was only six, picture what I’d do now with a loaded stick.” His father lost his final court appeal in late 2012 and was extradited from London to New York, an event that likely added to Bari’s agitated state of mind.

“I think his father being the figure he was, undoubtedly he had more exposure to those ideas and maybe a clearer understanding of them than others,” said Raffaelo Pantucci, a Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute who has followed Bari’s social media activities for over a year.

Aside from references to his father, his lyrics in general often suggested someone wrestling with anger and thoughts of violence. “I got a voice in my head and it’s telling me ‘kill,’ make the choice or you dead, ‘cause your enemies will. Lord, I don’t wanna retaliate, but […] now my feelings are itching to let the ‘matic spray […] Nah, I won’t give in to that, now I’m older and wiser,” he says in one track. In another: “I can’t differentiate the angels from the demons, my heart’s disintegrating, ain’t got normal feelings.”

Bari also made repeated references to “Allah” and his belief, as he phrased it, that “the deen [“religion” in Arabic] is crucial,” even at the same time as he sang of frequent drug and alcohol use. As Pantucci told NOW, though, the above themes are commonplace in rap lyrics, and there was never any explicit reference to events in Syria in Bari’s songs. (He did once write “Long Live Palestine” shortly after the November 2012 Gaza conflict.)

Ultimately, says Pantucci, Bari is only one of perhaps as many as 300 Britons fighting for extremist factions in Syria, and identifying the common factors motivating them to do so is not straightforward.

“[Bari] would undoubtedly say he had a sort of religious moment and saw that there were people suffering and he wanted to help them,” he told NOW. “But the motivations for people to go and do these things are as varied as the people who are going over. There are as many reasons for going as there are people, basically.”

One likely reason the UK is second only to France among European nations in terms of citizens fighting in Syria, says Pantucci, is its granting of political asylum to precisely the sort of militant Islamists Bari’s father stands accused of being.

Going back to the 1960s, Pantucci says, Britain witnessed “a flood of dissidents from the Arab world who set up shop in London. These were everything from political dissidents to Islamists. And among the Islamists, some were Muslim Brotherhood types, and others were affiliated with the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. So from that community you started to see the concepts of jihad taking root in the UK, as well as the personal connections” needed to translate the ideology into practice.

The problem, he is quick to add, is by no means limited to Britain. In recent months, Danes, Swedes, Norwegians, Spaniards, Austrians and Belgians are among some of the nationals discovered to be waging jihad in Syria. “For God’s sake, there’s been a Luxembourger who died fighting in Syria,” he told NOW.

“So it really is a pan-European problem.”

NB: Six months after this article was written, it emerged that the so-called 'Jihadi John' figure from ISIS' videos was in fact not Bari but a Kuwaiti-born Briton named Muhammad Emwazi.

Hezbollah is no stranger to takfir

[Originally posted at NOW]

As Sunni jihadists alarm the world, the Party of God seeks to brand itself a bastion of moderate Islam. Nobody should be fooled.

One has to hand it to whoever had the idea for Al-Akhbar’s interview with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah earlier this month. Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri may have nicknamed Saad Hariri “Santa Claus” after his return to Lebanon bearing a billion-dollar gift from Riyadh, but the Future Movement leader’s goateed grin was no match for the jolly beam of the silver-bearded Sayyid at his avuncular best.

He follows the gossip on Facebook. He likes Maradona, and supported Argentina in the World Cup final, which he watched with his son. His favorite dishes include mulukhiyya. When he has time, he watches TV and reads novels or the poems of Khalil Gibran. Who knew the fearsome, black-robed warrior-sheikh from the podium was really just a regular guy like you and me?

The true knight’s move, though, was his mention that he’s been reading a lot lately on “the phenomenon of takfir;” the doctrine of jihadist groups like Islamic State (IS) that holds Muslim opponents guilty of kufr (disbelief), a charge punishable by death. He wants, he says, to understand its “history, causes, and orientations.” We’re invited to picture the bespectacled scholar frowning in puzzlement at strange tracts detailing the arcane teachings, innocently gasping in horror at the thought of fundamentalists using violence to advance sectarian agenda. The whole act would almost be amusing if it weren’t inevitable that many readers, including not a few Western pundits, will have fallen for it (an English translation was also published).

It’s considered terribly crass and indecorous nowadays to bring up the early years of the Party of God, when Christians were “invited” to convert, Shiite women were forcibly veiled and men couldn’t get a drink even in famously convivial Tyre. That period was an aberration, we’re now told; all the fault of the “horrific” then-leader, Subhi Tufayli, and some “crazy” Iranians, as the otherwise supportive Asaad Abu Khalil recently phrased it. That’s all changed, it’s said, under the civilized stewardship of Nasrallah; the party has matured; been tamed; been ‘Lebanonized’ (and its Khomeinist patrons, presumably, are no longer “crazy”).

Very well; let’s not dwell on the kidnapping and murder of Western journalists in Beirut in the 1980s, or the old black-and-white videos of Nasrallah calling for a regional Islamist empire (why does that sound familiar?) or his claim that “He who rejects the authority of the [Iranian Supreme Leader] rejects God […] and is almost a polytheist” (even though Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, in her highly sympathetic 2002 study, Hizbu’llah: Politics and Religion, says that sentence “still provides a fair reflection of the party’s conception of the [ideology] today”). The following two examples from within the past 10 years should suffice to show the Party continues to have rather more in common with takfir, and Islamist extremism generally, than its fellow travelers care to acknowledge, and that such differences as exist tend to be, at most, ones of practice rather than principle.

In 2006, as anti-European riots erupted across the region following the publication of cartoons satirizing Islam in a Danish newspaper, Nasrallah took to the podium not to urge his co-religionists against the resort to violence but to say: “If a Muslim had implemented the fatwa of Imam Khomeini regarding the apostate Salman Rushdie, those despicable people would never have dared insult the Messenger of God” [italics added]. That’s to say, if only someone had murdered a British novelist for a work of fiction, artists the world over would be far too intimidated to ever consider satirizing our beliefs again (rather an odd outlook, incidentally, for someone who told Al-Akhbar he was a literature fan). Calling for a “severe” response to the cartoons (and getting his wish: days later, a mob torched the Danish consulate in Beirut and, for good measure, stoned a nearby church), he then went on to restate his belief that the Holocaust was all “fables” (asateer), as “proven” by 9/11 Truther Roger Garaudy.

Forgiving types would no doubt chalk this all up to mere ‘rhetorical posturing’ or some such formulation (as though calls for the heads of civilians were acceptable political currency). But we learn from Rushdie’s 2012 memoir, Joseph Anton, that the Party’s Hussein Musawi took the cause, as it were, very seriously at the time, threatening to kill British hostages if the fatwa weren’t carried out and offering to spare one if Rushdie were delivered to Beirut. What’s more, Rushdie was told by British intelligence that Hezbollah operatives were themselves trying to liquidate him as late in the day as 1998. True or not, in any case, the ‘Affair’ is clearly something Nasrallah is unable to let go (he brought it up yet again in 2012).

The second example comes from a year later, when the journalist Thanassis Cambanis was granted permission by Hezbollah to spend a day in the company of their youth branch, the Mahdi Scouts (named, rather suggestively, after the Twelfth Imam, the messianic figure most Shiites believe will one day return from occultation to establish perfect justice worldwide). Describing the guided tour of one of the Scouts’ dozens of camps in his excellent book, A Privilege to Die, he recalls watching children as young as six enjoy activities ranging from puppet reenactments of Nasrallah speeches to Quran memorization to readings from a manual titled “I Obey My Leader.”

“The Mahdi Scouts is charged with building the interior of kids,” as scout chief Bilal Naim told him. Some 60,000 children, Cambanis writes, are thus indoctrinated year-round with Hezbollah’s “unvarnished ideology, beginning with wilayat al-faqih, the concept of absolute clerical rule first implemented by Ayatollah Khomeini.” The program is highly effective, he adds, not just at grooming future generations of fighters, but also at Islamicizing the wider Shiite public from the bottom up: “examples abound” of parents and siblings adopting the ideology acquired by their juniors at the camps.

Of course, Nasrallah’s pose of religious moderation to Al-Akhbar was calculated with Syria in mind; the war next door having at different times dragged the Party in contradictory directions. Early in the conflict, Nasrallah’s speeches could be overtly sectarian, equating Sunnis to the killers of the Imam Hussein at the 680 A.D. Battle of Karbala – the very event that sparked the Sunni-Shiite schism – and, naturally, portraying Shiites as the righteous descendants of the martyr.

But in a landmark February 2013 speech, a new script was born, with Nasrallah suddenly striking an almost neoconservative tone, insisting on the urgency of “confronting terrorism” and warning without a trace of irony that Sunni jihadists in Syria sought “to transform Lebanon into a part of their Islamic state.” This theme, intended to convince the outside world that the pro-Assad camp is the comparatively secular one in Syria, has generally been kept up ever since, though the mask does slip on occasion, like when in a rousing August 2013 appearance Nasrallah thundered, “We are the Shiites of Ali Ibn Abi Talib! […] We are Hezbollah, the Shiite Islamic Party of the Twelfth Imam!”

It will no doubt be argued by ‘realists’ and their kind that the brutality of groups like the IS is orders of magnitude greater than anything done by Hezbollah today – that, whatever its transgressions, the Party doesn’t round up and crucify or behead people, or threaten minority sects with extermination. Which is true enough, even if Hezbollah-trained Shiite fundamentalists in Iraq speak of their desire to ethnically cleanse towns of Sunnis, and even if summary executions and other atrocities committed by Hezbollah in Syria have been documented, as have the killings of opponents at home like Hashem Salman. The point is rather that the very debate over which kind of heavily armed Islamists to prefer over another is a debased and degrading one to begin with. The IS may be the worst of a bad bunch, but it would be a strange sort of ‘moderate’ or ‘progressive’ indeed who would be content with Holocaust-denying totalitarians in their stead.

Arab rulers meet Obama, declare "solidarity" against Ferguson "plot"

[Originally posted at NOW Blog]

As US President Barack Obama scrambled Wednesday to contain domestic unrest that has seen multiple killings of civilians by police, mass arrests, the firing of tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets at demonstrators, and the establishment of military checkpoints in the streets, the commander-in-chief received a surprise show of support from a perhaps unlikely source. In a rare display of unity, the leaders of the Arab world set aside their political differences, economic rivalries, and murderous sectarian proxy wars to travel to Washington, DC, to personally deliver to the president what they called a “message of full solidarity in the face of the global criminal conspiracy.”

“I know better than anyone what it’s like for a great, free nation to come under attack from thousands of terrorists in its own streets,” said Egyptian President Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, kicking off the proceedings at the White House reception in a pair of dark sunglasses. “Indeed, as of this week, it’s been exactly one year since the patriots of the Egyptian army finally liberated our capital from the insurgents’ grip, in what was the most glorious milestone yet in what your honorable Secretary of State, Mr Kerry, has described as our ‘restoring democracy.’ President Obama, like myself, is a leader for all his people. And I praise his iron determination, but also his humane restraint, in confronting the enemies of his people, whether they be armed gangsters or journalists.”

“Barack and I haven’t seen entirely eye to eye in recent years,” joked Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after taking the podium, drawing laughs and a round of delighted applause as a grinning Obama mimed an ‘oops’ gesture with his hand. “But today we face a common danger, a cancer that threatens us both equally. There can be no reasoning, no negotiating, with cancer. One can only exterminate it.”

“And Lord knows I know a thing or two about extermination,” he added with a wink, earning another eruption of laughter and even, according to one aide present, a standing ovation from Obama.

Following Assad was the Bahraini ruler, King Sheikh Hamad al-Khalifa. “The American police have rightly identified the groups assaulting them – who pose as so-called reformists and shed crocodile tears about equality – as dangerous ‘agitators’ and ‘criminals.’ We in Bahrain know the dirty tricks of such provocateurs very well. And I think I speak for everyone here when I say it’s a source of great personal pride to me that the tactics – not to mention the munitions themselves – used by your brave security forces in resisting these traitors were first used in my own country against precisely the same enemy.” A concert of sober applause broke out, and a suddenly serious Obama placed his palm on his heart and nodded in appreciation.

After several more speeches along similar lines, including an assurance from Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim al-Thani that coverage of the events on Al Jazeera America would exclude anything “disrespectful” toward the Obama government, the president himself took to the podium to accept a Cartier diamond-encrusted golden dagger from the ruler of the United Arab Emirates.

Asked to say a few words, Obama began with a deadpan rejoinder to the Syrian president: “It’s always a gas when Bashar’s around.”

“Seriously, though, it’s good to see you guys,” he continued, scanning the faces of the Omanis, Yemenis, Sudanese, and Kuwaitis. “I had kind of forgotten half of you existed.” After a jumbled, seemingly distracted thirty second pronouncement on “freedom,” he excused himself, explaining a helicopter was waiting to return him to his vacation home in Martha’s Vineyard. “Tee-off’s in an hour,” he said to confused frowns. “That bastard Biden’s probably already on the range.”

Elsewhere in the Middle East, Israel had already made its own statement of support to the Ferguson police force’s crackdown. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had hoped to join the delegation in D.C. but was unable to obtain travel permits. Lebanon, currently having no head of state, was absent, though as one diplomat who preferred to remain anonymous quipped, “With Syria and Saudi attending, you could say the Lebanese government was already amply represented.”

Iran compromises in Iraq, but won't in Syria

[Originally posted at NOW]

Tehran’s overtures to rivals in Iraq and, to a lesser extent, Lebanon will not be emulated in Syria, say analysts.

On Thursday, Iraq’s controversial Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki relented to weeks of domestic and international pressure and stepped down from office, making way for the first new Iraqi premier in eight years, Haider al-Abadi.

The departure of Maliki – the leader of the Shiite Islamist Dawa Party, whose rule has long been unpopular with Iraq’s sizeable Sunni minority; a fact widely seen as instrumental in facilitating the takeover by Sunni extremists of most of northwestern Iraq in June – was interpreted by many analysts as a concession by Iran, Maliki’s longtime patron and ally whose influence on Iraqi politics is considerable.

“The replacement of Maliki is evidence that the Iranian project is facing setbacks in Iraq,” Lebanese analyst Mustafa Fahs told NOW.

Moreover, less than a week previously, former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri made a surprise return to Beirut after a three-year absence. A member of Hariri’s Future Movement, MP Bassem al-Shab, told NOW the return came at “[a time] of Iranian flexibility” vis-à-vis its Lebanese opponents, suggesting Tehran had made a series of tacit compromises in an effort to defuse the Sunni-Shiite hostility currently straining both Lebanon and Iraq.

Any hopes, however, that Iran might take similar conciliatory steps in Syria are ill-founded, according to analysts, who told NOW the Islamic Republic was all but certain to continue backing the Bashar al-Assad regime.

“Syria remains a very high stake issue for Iran,” said Dr. Murhaf Jouejati, Professor of Middle East Studies at the US National Defense University. “I think Iran will persist in its support of the Assad regime, regardless of what happens in Iraq. The departure of Mr. Maliki became a necessity for Iran, but I don’t think this will impact at all on its policy in Syria.”

One reason for the difference lies in the degree of pressure on Iran to change course, which was intense in the case of Iraq but is less so in Syria, according to analysts.

“The Iranians accepted the ousting of Maliki, that’s true, but I don’t feel they did it willingly or because of a Saudi [Arabian] request,” said Jamal Khashoggi, a veteran Saudi journalist and former advisor to then-ambassador Prince Turki al-Faisal. “It was more about American pressure, Iraqi pressure, [Iraqi Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali] Sistani’s pressure. And it took them a long time till they accepted reality and let Maliki go.”

By contrast, far from making concessions in Syria, Khashoggi told NOW he believed the Iranians would in fact seek to exploit the ongoing jihadist atrocities in northern Iraq to reinforce their and Assad’s claims to have been battling a “terrorist” insurgency in Syria during the last three years, thereby gaining support from an international community increasingly alarmed by the rapid rise of Sunni jihadist groups such as the al-Qaeda offshoot, the Islamic State (IS).

“The Iranians and [Lebanese Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah and others will probably be talking now about how they have been right all along, how Islamic extremists are the problem, not Bashar,” said Khashoggi.

“And I’m sure some will be asking the question: is it time for the Saudis and Iranians and Americans to cooperate together?”

Sure enough, in an op-ed Sunday, British Prime Minister David Cameron argued the “international community” should partner “even with Iran” in its political and military action against the “shared threat” posed by the IS. The notion, said Khashoggi, was agreeable “in principle,” but would have to be coupled with an Iranian foreign policy more palatable to non-Shiite Arabs across the region to successfully contain Sunni jihadism in the longer run.

“The fall of IS should not allow the Iranians to resume their sectarian [policies] again, [their] dream of creating a wilayat al-faqih [pan-Islamic state governed by Shiite theologians] spreading from Iraq to Lebanon,” Khashoggi told NOW. To that end, he advocates enabling Saudi Arabia and Turkey to spearhead the international campaign against the IS, in tandem with the West.

“We should get rid of IS, but we should not allow the Iranians to benefit from that.”

Myra Abdallah contributed reporting.

With house in order, Hariri seeks to build on talks

[Originally posted at NOW]

Future leader has reasserted control over the Sunni community, but it’s unclear how much more can be achieved for now.

When Future Movement leader MP Saad Hariri made a surprise return to Lebanon on Friday after a more than three-year absence, one of his close allies, Interior Minister Ashraf Rifi, declared that Lebanon thereafter would be markedly different from Lebanon thitherto.

Five days later, Future officials claim that transformation is already well underway, telling NOW the former prime minister has rapidly and tangibly reasserted his grip on both his party and his broader Sunni Muslim support base, fringes of which had, in his absence, drifted away from Future’s brand of religious moderation toward hardline Islamist and even jihadist rivals.

“I think he did a lot of things in a very brief period of time,” said Future MP Bassem al-Shab. “First of which was putting the house in order. What happened in Arsal threatened to create a Sunni-Sunni rift […] and he wanted to take care of this and I think he did to a large extent.”

Referring to Future hardliners such as MP Muhammad Kabbara, who were initially critical of the Lebanese Army’s conduct in fighting jihadist militants in the border town of Arsal last week, but later expressed support for the military, Shab told NOW, “The dissonant voices […] who criticized the army were quickly silenced, and in the [internal] meeting when [Hariri] said we should support the army unconditionally, there were no [objections].”

In tandem with this political move, said Shab, was a shakeup within the Sunni religious establishment, effected by the election Sunday of a new grand mufti – the community’s top cleric – in place of a predecessor who for years had been at odds with allies of the Future Movement.

“The election of the new mufti,” Shab told NOW, and the presence of both his predecessor and leading non-Future Sunni figures such as former Prime Minister Najib Miqati, furthered “Sunni harmony,” attaining a degree of “reconciliation with the people who opposed him while he was away.”

This double victory, on both the political and religious fronts, puts Hariri in a stronger position within the Sunni community than had been the case just a week ago, analysts told NOW. “Hariri proved that he is the only zaeem [chief] of the Sunnis,” said commentator Mustafa Fahs.

In terms of practical steps going forward, sources told NOW that in addition to overseeing the Saudi Arabian donation of $1bn to the Lebanese Army – his officially-stated reason for returning – Hariri will also implement an economic regeneration program for underdeveloped and marginalized regions that have in the past been susceptible to extremist currents.

“He will provide political and financial support to regions in need, as has already happened in Arsal,” said Future MP Ahmad Fatfat, referring to Hariri’s $15m donation Monday to the war-damaged town.

Hariri himself also pledged Tuesday to “spare no effort to rehabilitate prisons,” in a presumed reference to the notorious Roumieh prison, where dozens of Islamist militants are held, and which has seen numerous inmate escapes in recent years. In June, members of the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) faction reportedly called for the release of Islamist prisoners from Roumieh.

Beyond these initiatives, Hariri’s principal next move will be to “continue negotiations with all Lebanese parties” on resolving key domestic issues ranging from presidential and parliamentary elections to the public sector wage increase debate, according to Fatfat and Shab.

Indeed, Hariri’s return is aimed more at creating a conciliatory and functional political environment in the country than implementing any specific, point-by-point action plan, according to a ministerial source who has met Hariri since his arrival and requested anonymity as he is not authorized to speak to the press.

“I didn’t hear of a specific action plan,” said the source. “For the time being it’s more ‘macro’ politics than ‘micro’ politics.”

Either way, for his part, the ministerial source told NOW he expected little of much significance to result from Hariri’s efforts, owing to obstinacy from Future’s rivals in the ‘March 8’ bloc.

“From what I’m seeing and hearing, I don’t think much will happen,” he told NOW. “The status quo is still the same […] The question is, did the comeback generate enough momentum for other parties to move on, to meet Hariri in the middle? Until now, I don’t see this.”

“And prolonging the mandate of parliament is a bad sign that nothing is expected in the near future,” he added, referring to proposals earlier this week – now effectively backed by Hariri – to once again extend parliamentarians’ terms beyond their constitutional expiry dates.

However, Shab, by contrast, told NOW he saw room for progress in a subtle but substantial shift in Iran’s stance vis-à-vis Lebanon.

“Hariri’s return comes also in [a time] of Iranian flexibility,” said Shab, claiming Tehran has lately sought to defuse sectarian tensions inside the country. “Everybody made sure that [Hariri’s] return was welcome.”

“There is something that has changed not only on this side [i.e. March 14] but also on the other side.”

Myra Abdallah contributed reporting.

Quiet on the anti-interventionist front

[Originally posted at NOW]

Is it just me, or have America’s latest killings of jihadists in Iraq generated less resentment – not to say rage – than similar efforts typically did in the previous decade?

A glance at the reaction – or, rather, lack thereof – from anti-interventionist circles over the past few days suggests that is indeed the case. Barring the sheer crackpottery of such outfits as Britain’s Stop The War, which said it was “vital that we oppose” the operation that rescued over 20,000 Iraqis from certain death at ISIS’ hands (and which, when it’s Russia rather than America doing the invading, turns out to be remarkably flexible on the principle), there simply has not been much noise made about it. Even so cacophonous a demagogue as George Galloway hasn’t been able to denounce the strikes per se, grumbling instead (on Russian state TV) that they’ll be ineffective because the Americans “sat on their hands” the whole time ISIS was growing – a criticism that, he apparently doesn’t see, works at the expense of the anti-interventionist position.

Why, then, this quiet? A generous reading might point to the highly idiosyncratic circumstances of the Mount Sinjar case – easily identifiable militant locations, clearly segregated from a purely civilian populace facing unambiguous and imminent genocide. It’s a moral philosopher’s hypothetical example brought to life – if ‘Responsibility to Protect’ doesn’t apply here, it doesn’t apply anywhere.

Yet there is likely a second reason, plainly (if inadvertently) detectable in Galloway, which is that many anti-interventionists have for three years now energetically premised their case precisely on their enmity toward ISIS and its predecessors, who (having been the “resistance” in Iraq back in the 2000s) then became the Zionist-imperialist traitors against the “fortress of Arab dignity” that is the Assad regime. That’s why neither Lebanon’s Hezbollah nor Tehran have made any public condemnations of the operations – call someone a “takfiri” or “terrorist” once, and it’s not easy to complain when someone starts killing them. How embarrassing it must be for the “anti-imperialists” to suddenly find Empire fighting on their side.

Hariri back with mission to stabilize, say analysts

[Originally posted at NOW]

After a more than three-year absence from Lebanon on grounds of personal security concerns, Future Movement leader and former Prime Minister MP Saad Hariri took the country by surprise Friday morning with an unannounced return, appearing suddenly on live television feeds making his way to a meeting with Prime Minister Tammam Salam in downtown Beirut.

His return – which he says will be a “long” one – has been hailed by Future officials and their March 14 allies as a significant boost for Lebanon’s fraying stability, and a timely boon for the moderate and pluralistic majority of the country’s Sunni community at the expense of a small but growing extremist minority.

Yet the exact reasons for the move at this particular time remain a subject of debate. Officially, Hariri has said he came back to “address the implementation” of a recent $1bn donation to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) by Saudi Arabia, the principal regional backer of the Future Movement. Future official Rashid Fayed expanded on this, implicitly putting it in the context of Saudi’s reportedly broader efforts to crack down on regional jihadist militancy in recent months.

“Hariri is a party in the war against terror, and his return was engineered at the international, Arab and regional levels” in that capacity, said Fayed.

Triggering this initiative, several analysts told NOW, were the recent clashes in the eastern border town of Arsal between the LAF and foreign jihadists, which raised fears – both domestically and internationally – of a potentially dramatic destabilization in Lebanon along the lines seen in Iraq in June. Significantly, the rhetoric of Future and other March 14 officials regarding Hariri’s return has emphasized the notion of combating extremism within the Sunni community itself, rather than combating Hezbollah, the Syrian regime, or any other of March 14’s traditional foes.

“It seems he came back now because of the major incidents happening in Lebanon,” said Hazem Saghieh, a widely-published political commentator. “I think the international community pushed him to come back because it is not acceptable that he stays away with all this chaos.”

The urgency of the Arsal situation and what it could portend may also have convinced Hariri’s traditional domestic opponents, Hezbollah and the pro-Damascus March 8 bloc, along with their regional backers that his presence in Lebanon was desirable, thus easing his fears concerning security (five Hezbollah members stand accused by a UN-backed international tribunal of carrying out the assassination of his father, former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri).

“[Perhaps] the problems that led him to stay away for three years have been resolved,” said Hussam Itani, a columnist at Al-Hayat. “If so, that would be a very positive thing; akin to a Saudi-Iranian agreement.”

Quite apart from security considerations, however, there has been talk, including from officials such as Telecoms Minister Butrus Harb, that Hariri’s return could be intended to reinvigorate efforts to end an 11-week-long presidential vacuum. How exactly Hariri’s physical presence would substantially change the dynamics on this front, however, remains unclear.

Indeed, some observers also questioned the extent to which Hariri could influence the security situation, either, no matter how well-meaning his intentions.

“I don’t know what it will change, I’m very skeptical,” said Mosbah al-Ahdab, a former Tripoli MP with the independent Democratic Renewal (“Tajaddod”) Movement.

“It is impossible to boost Sunni moderation as long as Hezbollah has weapons,” said Saghieh. “As long as Hezbollah still has weapons and security incidents are happening, the Sunni community will continue to be drawn to extremism.”

To this, Future MP Mustafa Alloush countered that “part of combating terrorism is political,” arguing Hariri’s political and religious moderation would have a positive influence on the Sunni community at large.

“He felt that he should be here in order to try to reconcile and guide the community again toward the essentially pluralistic and non-extremist point of view that the Future Movement represents.”

Myra Abdallah contributed reporting.

[Video] Syrian refugees begin new life in Scotland

[Originally posted at NOW, with video]

There aren’t many days one can share an uplifting or cheering video about Syrian refugees, but today is one of them, thanks to NOW’s very own (former) culture editor, Ellie Violet Bramley, who along with a colleague has produced this excellent video interview with a family of four from Damascus now living in Edinburgh, Scotland, for the Guardian.

Ayman and his wife and twin sons can’t have been easy to track down, being among just 50 (fifty) Syrian refugees to have been taken in by the UK to date – an amazingly embarrassing statistic, representing 0.0017% of all Syrian refugees.

Yet there they are, in what looks like a council house, living what could hardly be called a normal or ideal life, but one that’s at least comparatively safe. The children go to nursery, but are terrified by loud noises such as fireworks. Word of newly murdered relatives back home arrives regularly. Ayman has found a job (“I’m so happy to work and pay tax so I can be another man”) but still trembles when recalling the killings by regime snipers of his friends during the uprisings three years ago. He describes himself as “lucky,” but confesses he yearns to return to Damascus, where “I left my heart.”

My mother comes from Edinburgh, and I must have spent more school holidays there than anywhere else, so I find it strangely stirring to hear Ayman beginning to pick up the local accent (let’s hope he doesn’t also pick up Buckfast dependency, football hooliganism or any other such native customs). What a shame – for Britons as well as Syrians – that the opportunities for this kind of experience have been made so pitifully few by a closed-minded and cold-hearted British government policy.

Arsal civilians trapped between shells and snipers

[Originally posted at NOW]

NOW talks to Arsal residents caught in theater involving Lebanese army, Hezbollah, and militants.

As clashes rage Monday for the third day running between foreign Islamist militants and the Lebanese army – reportedly in cooperation with Hezbollah – in the remote eastern border town of Arsal, the more than 80,000-strong population, which includes over 40,000 registered Syrian refugees, is caught in a deadly trap in the middle, between the militants’ guns on the one hand and intense barrages of incoming artillery on the other.

“Armed people were everywhere,” said Khaled Hojairi, a Lebanese Arsal resident who managed to flee the town at 2pm Sunday. “I saw them shooting randomly. I had to be very careful to avoid being shot,” he told NOW.

“Yesterday, [militants] tried to target an army position close to my house,” said Abu Muhammad*, another Arsal native who spoke to NOW via telephone. “I helped the soldiers to escape by hosting them in my house for a while.” As a result, a “direct armed confrontation” ensued between the militants and local residents who took up arms to repel them.

Hours later, Abu Muhammad said his home “was [hit] by heavy weapons, the kind that only the Lebanese army and Hezbollah have […] Arsal is now being bombed randomly, all the houses are being targeted equally without differentiating between one and another.”

Along with more than a thousand other Lebanese – but not Syrians, who have reportedly been forbidden to leave – Abu Muhammad was able to flee Arsal during a temporary calm on Monday morning.

The vast majority of residents, however, were not so fortunate, and the sealing of the only road in and out of the town later Monday morning forced them to remain stuck in the middle, under fire from all sides.

“The civilians are trapped, because they can’t go in or out,” said Carol Malouf, a journalist and activist who runs a Syrian refugee camp in Wadi Hmayed, the barren, mountainous region just east of Arsal where the militants – thought to be affiliated with the Islamic State (formerly Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham) and Jabhat al-Nusra factions – triggered the battle Saturday by ambushing a Lebanese army checkpoint, killing two soldiers.

“When [civilians] try to leave, there are a lot of snipers shooting at them,” Malouf told NOW. At the same time, “there has been a lot of indiscriminate shelling. Our camp in Wadi Hmayyed was hit and several tents were on fire yesterday.” A temporary truce effected at 21:00 on Sunday enabled the transfer of most of the camp residents to Arsal town center, but Malouf says they remain in significant danger there.

“The militants have checkpoints in [Arsal] itself and at its entrance,” she told NOW. “If [civilians] stay, there is fear they will be taken as human shields by the militants.”

Conditions are even worse for the scores of injured civilians who, according to Abu Muhammad, are being treated on the floors of overwhelmed local medical facilities, unable – due to the closed road – to be taken to hospitals in the nearby Beqaa Valley.

“It’s really bad, and we really need to focus on getting the civilians out,” said Malouf.

To that end, a ceasefire was ostensibly agreed upon Monday evening, supposed to come into effect at 18:00, to enable a delegation of the Association of Muslim Scholars to enter the town and negotiate the evacuation of injured civilians, the release of Lebanese soldiers held by the gunmen, and the latter’s withdrawal from Lebanon, according to Nabil al-Halabi, a member of the delegation who spoke to NOW moments after it had been agreed. The latest official information from the Lebanese army is that 14 soldiers have been killed and 86 wounded, while 22 are unaccounted for (many presumed held by the militants).

The ceasefire had not, however, come into effect at the time of writing, and was in any case not expected to be a lasting one. More army units were seen heading into Arsal and firing artillery just minutes before the ceasefire’s appointed time, and Prime Minister Tammam Salamdeclared in a statement not long before then that there would be no “leniency, truce or political solution” with the “murderous terrorists.”

Indeed, there are signs the military’s operation could expand significantly. In what appeared to be a corroboration of multiple reports of Hezbollah’s involvement in the shelling of the town, the head of the party’s religious council, Sheikh Muhammad Yazbek, said Monday “we will not leave the army [to fight] alone,” pledging to “defend [against the militants] with all the power in our hands.”

And, shortly after a Twitter account called “Arsal News Network”reported the presence of Syrian regime MiG fighter jets above Arsal Monday afternoon, the National News Agency reported a “series” of Syrian air strikes on “positions of gunmen along the Lebanese-Syrian border.”

Such developments would in fact be consistent with an assertion by the mayor of the nearby town of Labwe last Wednesday that the Lebanese army, Hezbollah and the Syrian regime would soon commence a joint “operation” to “put an end to terrorism along the border.” If so, the political consequences of such open cooperation between the Lebanese army and these controversial, polarizing actors could be far-reaching.

“If Arsal is being bombed by the Lebanese army, this is a problem,” said Abu Muhammad.

“And if it is being bombed by Hezbollah while the Lebanese army is doing nothing about it, this is a bigger problem.”

*NB: Citing fears for his and his family’s security, the source asked to be referred to by a pseudonym.

Myra Abdallah contributed reporting.