Monday January 27, 2014, no168
Weekly information and analysis bulletin specialized in Arab Middle Eastern affairs prepared by neworientnews.com
Editor in chief Wassim Raad
New Orient Center for Strategic policies
The Syrian state has already won the first round in Geneva 2
By Ghaleb Kandil
The Geneva Conference 2 showed strongly the sovereign and independent position and attitude of the Syrian state and its determination to seriously find a political solution to the crisis through dialogue with the opposition. However, the opposition presented a crestfallen face and continued, with the enemies of Syria, the campaign of lies to intensify pressure on this resistant state.
Geneva 2 has identified a series of data, which included the Syrian state strength and credibility, which are illustrated in the following facts:
-The firm determination to protect the independence and sovereignty, refusing any precondition and focusing on the will of the Syrian people, the ultimate authority of constitutional and political reference. An even greater determination to face any attempt of foreign intervention in Syrian sovereign affairs.
-The choice of inter-Syrian dialogue, even if the opposition delegation suffers from a serious lack of representativeness and is manipulated by the alliance that is waging a war against Syria, led by the United States.
-The strong commitment to the priority of the battle against terrorism, subtly integrated into the concept of stopping the violence, consecrated by the initiative of Kofi Annan, sabotaged by the United States.
-The presentation of the Syrian state vision of the transitional period, which should be the culmination of the dialogue in the shadow of the current Constitution and not a coup through a transitional governing council, as defended by the Secretary of State, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton before him, according to their interpretation of the Geneva 1 understanding. An understanding that is the subject of conflicting views between Moscow and Washington.
In addition to all these elements, the delegation of the Syrian state has emerged as a cohesive team, skilfully managing the media, political and diplomatic battle, focusing the interests of journalists in Montreux. The Syrian delegation gave a brilliant image of the Syrian state, consistent and confident in its supremacy.
The United States, as usual, released a lot of lies in order to increase pressure on the Syrian state, trying to impose a definite reading of Geneva 1, backed by many Western media. In fact, Geneva 1 nowhere mentions namely President Bashar al-Assad, and does not expect the formation of a supra-constitutional transitional instance. This means that such a body, if it were born, could be constitutional only if it is formed by a decree signed by President Assad and if its members take an oath before the head of state.
Statements of John Kerry and François Hollande on the role of President Assad are not in accordance with the provisions of Geneva 1. And indecency has reached such heights that at the same time, U.S., British and French authorities, circulate information on contacts made with the Syrian authorities on cooperation in the fight against terrorism. Unscrupulously, Kerry sent one of his assistants to the newsroom of Montreux to declare to journalists known for their friendships with the Syrian state, that the United States are aware of the changes in the balance of power imposed the Syrian Arab Army, and to confirm the Syrian-American contacts. This schizophrenia was probed by journalists in Switzerland during the coverage of the conference.
The Government of Qatar, and behind it the U.S. intelligence, invented a big lie in an attempt to influence the climate of the conference, through the so-called report on torture and executions in the Syrian prisons. Western journalists and experts have noticed the many flaws and failures in this document and its unexpected timing for the opposition and the enemies of Syria. Some stressed ironically that countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which does not even have a Constitution, present themselves as defenders of human rights facing a civil and secular state, fought by extremist-Takfirists groups, funded by these two backward countries.
Another incongruity of the conference, the fact that the U.S. ambassador to Damascus, Robert Ford, appeared as the true president of the Syrian National Coalition delegation (SNC).
Likely that the conference will end with the three propositions given in Moscow by the Minister Walid Moallem: an exchange of prisoners; security arrangements, which would start in Aleppo-the SNC wants them to start in Homs; the delivery of humanitarian aid.
Another date may then be decided after the settlement of the two mistakes which the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, has promised to fix: the exclusion of Iran and the expansion of the representativeness of the opposition delegation by including other groups that have been excluded.
The Syrian national state won a major round and the battle continues. It is the Syrian Arab Army which will have the major role in the coming period.
Saad Hariri, Future Movement Leader
«We're trying to run the country with everyone, because we do not want to keep anyone outside. Lebanon is having a difficult time, especially since the international community has failed miserably to do anything for Syria. I think it is our duty toward the people of Lebanon to stabilize the country ... I am very optimistic. We know that they are allegedly persons who committed these crimes ... But at the end of the day, this is a political party that has a big coalition, with Aounis. Eventually I will return to Lebanon. There is a security problem in Lebanon, especially as you know the assassination of Mohammad Shatah the year before, and Wissam al-Hassan the year before that. I don't want to go back and end up like the others. I want to go back and play my role as I should.»
Michel Aoun, Free Patriotic Movement leader
«We can make sacrifices but not at the expense of the people we represent and we can make concessions without eliminating ... our presence and role. While we reject the principle of having a single sect or party permanently occupying any ministerial post, rotation [of ministerial portfolios] is permissible [only after] a new parliamentary era and in the framework of an actual equality. I am still working toward the formation of a national unity government and I am glad with a formula that represents everyone. We accepted the 8-8-8 formula despite the injustice concerning the number of ministerial posts allocated to our bloc. We cannot waiver on proper Christian representation either in terms of the ministerial portfolios, the number of the posts and their nature whether they are ... primary or secondary. We cannot give up on the right of each party naming its representatives in the Cabinet because that party should be held accountable to its voters. We think that the prospective government can establish a new phase of dialogue and understandings with the aim of securing stability instead of strife that is threatening Lebanon's existence. We think that the government will pave the way for the presidential election, which should be held on time and bring a strong president who is a true representation of Christians.»
Adnane Mansour, Caretaker Foreign Minister
«I will never retract these statements regardless of the campaigns against me, after all we live in a democratic country and there are different points of view… and we will choose the road we deem appropriate. I had informed President Michel Suleiman of the content of my speech before I left, but I added a passage during the conference because the Lebanese people, who sacrificed many martyrs, cannot be called terrorists.»
Samir Geagea, Lebanese Forces leader
«The country cannot be left without a government, which must be an actual, harmonious one, and these conditions can only be attained at the moment through a neutral government. I am convinced that as long as Hezbollah remains in its current position, we will not be able to improve the country, things will rather become worse. The 14-Mars is wrong if he thinks he can make a difference by participating in the new government. We agreed in the coalition on the fact that participation in government without political change we would be fatal. We do not want to participate in government without prior guarantees and later worked as wish some of our comrades, to develop the ministerial declaration on the basis of principles to which we are all committed. Hezbollah has made concessions only in form. The formula of 8-8-8 offers no solution since it seems that the party will try to have a say in the choice of a minister close to the president and another close to the Prime Minister, which will increase its share to ten ministers and not eight.»
Samir el-Jisr, Future bloc MP
«Those present at the meeting believe that failure to deal with the security incident that sparked the recent clashes, and failure to contain the matter by pursuing and arresting the perpetrators, is what allowed the return of sniper operations. The lack of a security presence in all areas of the city has allowed for waves of theft. Stability begins with protective security, which can identify threats and deal with them before they happen. The return of stability begins with the active presence and deployment of security forces.»
A resident from the northern city of Tripoli pledged allegiance in a YouTube video to the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. “After the flag of Islam expanded from Iraq to Al-Sham [Syria]… we have decided to pledge allegiance to [ISIS]… from Tripoli, so it would become a door, God willing, [to pass] from Lebanon to [Jerusalem],” Abou Sayyaf al-Ansari said in a video broadcast Saturday on YouTube. “We pledge allegiance to the [chief] of believers, [ISIS leader] Abou Bakr al-Husseini al-Qoreishi al-Baghdadi,” the extremist added. “We have proposed to them to recruit units in Lebanon in order to continue the path of Jihad,” Ansari explained in his YouTube address. Ansari also slammed the Lebanese Armed Forces, and called on Sunnis in the army to leave it. “We have awoken from our sleep… because the nation’s pillars are being cracked by Lebanon’s Crusader army [the LAF] supported by [Hezbollah]. On another hand, the Al-Nusra Front in Lebanon issued a statement along with the Abdullah Azzam Brigades claiming responsibility for the rocket strike on the Beqaa town of Hermel, adding that they would continue to target Hezbollah until their demands are met. “The Marwan Hadid Brigades adherent to the Abdullah Azzam Brigades as well as the Al-Nusra Front in Lebanon [claim responsibility for] the bombing of Hermel with seven Grad rockets, [an attack] which achieved its goals,” a statement issued on Twitter said.
Thirteen nuns abducted by Syrian rebels from their convent in the town of Maaloula last month are "well" as negotiations continue for their release, Syrian Patriarch John Yazigi told reporters on Saturday. Rebels kidnapped the nuns on December 3 from their convent in the Mar Thecla Monastery of the historic Christian town Maaloula and taken to the nearby village of Yabroud. "They are believed to be at a residence in Yabroud, and they are well," the cleric was quoted as saying by Lebanon's National News Agency from Beirut's international airport ahead of a visit to Moscow. "Negotiations are still ongoing," he added. "We hope for their quick release along with the bishops, for they carry a message of peace in the service of others," Yazigi said, referring to two bishops kidnapped in Syria last April. The 13 nuns were kidnapped along with three civilians a day after rebels overran their village.
Nearly 50 people were killed in weekend clashes that erupted during rival rallies marking the anniversary of Egypt's 2011 that toppled Hosni Mubarak, the health ministry said Sunday. Three years after Egyptians rose up to demand the overthrow of Mubarak, thousands of demonstrators in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Saturday chanted slogans backing another military man, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, as police clashed with Islamists and activists elsewhere. Forty-nine people were killed, the ministry said, in 24 hours of fighting across Egypt as police and supporters of the military-installed government clashed with Islamist backers of president Mohamed Morsi, who was deposed in July after a single turbulent year in power. Egypt was already on edge after four bombs exploded in Cairo on Friday, including a massive blast outside police headquarters. The attacks, which were claimed by a Sinai-based extremist group, killed six people. Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, an Al-Qaeda-inspired group, claimed Friday's bombings, all of which targeted police, and urged "Muslims" to stay away from police buildings.
As Safir (Lebanese daily, Arab nationalist)
Imad Marmal (January 24, 2014)
Whence comes the surprising flexibility of Hezbollah, the Future Movement and Amal Movement on the government issue, which led the parties to make reciprocal concessions that allowed to consider a unifying government. An expert explains that these concessions are not due solely to an internal consideration. They reflect foremost regional and international upheavals that local actors could not ignore.
These changes involve Russia, the United States, Iran and Saudi Arabia. The U.S. Ambassador David Hale said during a visit to Tammam Salam: "If you form a neutral government, we do not oppose it. But it would be preferable that you form a government in which Hezbollah would be represented." European ambassadors have called to share the prime minister-designate to form as soon as a unifying government , assuring that they would be at his side.
An Nahar (Lebanese daily, close to March-14 Coalition)
(January 25, 2014)
“The alternative to forming a cabinet according to the 8-8-8 formula is a fait accompli or neutral cabinet, which is the best choice for March 14,” Berri was quoted by his visitors as saying.
“I fear the opportunity to form a unity government will not be seized,” he said.
Berri also voiced his readiness to make efforts again concerning this issue when he is certain that “parties are willing to be flexible in order to reach an understanding and overcome obstacles.”
Lebanon’s political parties are attempting to form a new government that would bring together the rival March 14 and March 8 alliances.
Future Movement leader MP Saad Hariri, whose party is the main pillar of the pro-Western March 14 coalition, stated earlier in the week that he is putting aside his personal differences with Hezbollah, in an effort to form a national-partnership cabinet that can safeguard the country.
Meanwhile, the Free Patriotic Movement has rejected the proposed rotation of the ministerial portfolios, and caretaker Energy Minister Gebran Bassil has voiced his insistence on the party maintaining control over the Energy and Telecom Ministries.
Al Akhbar (Lebanese Daily close to the Lebanese Resistance)
Radwan Mortada (January 25, 2014)
On January 24, online jihadi forums affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) were promoting a recorded speech by ISIS leader Abu Sayyaf al-Ansari, in which he will declare the expansion of the Islamic State into Lebanon. The speech will be posted today on ISIS’ official Twitter page at an as yet undisclosed time.
Meanwhile, Lebanon’s branch of al-Nusra Front posted on its Twitter feed its fourth official statement to date, titled “Urgent appeal to Sunnis in Lebanon.” The statement declared, “Iran’s party [i.e. Hezbollah] and all its bases and […] strongholds are a legitimate target for us wherever they may be found.” Al-Nusra, based on its “concern for the blood of the Sunnis and to clear one’s conscience before God,” called on Sunnis in Lebanon to “refrain from approaching or residing in [Hezbollah] areas or near its bases,” and to “avoid its gathering places and posts.”
The jihadi factions are racing to declare war on Lebanon. This takes place in parallel with rapid security developments, in tandem with the Lebanese army crackdown on individuals suspected of involvement with al-Qaeda-affiliated groups. But what implications does al-Nusra Front’s fourth statement carry? And will there be anything new in the speech of ISIS leader Ansari?
Speaking to Al-Akhbar via Skype, a jihadi leader active in the Damascus countryside gave a preview of Ansari’s speech. He said, “Our war will no longer be confined to Syria. Soon, Lebanon will ignite.”
He continued, “The time intervals seen between the five bombings that hit Beirut’s southern suburb will shrink, and the pace of martyrdom [suicide] attacks against Hezbollah targets will accelerate.” The jihadi leader then said, “Things won’t stop at the time intervals between attacks, and their scope will also expand.”
“The amount of explosives used will also be doubled,” he added.
According to reports, Ansari is an al-Qaeda commander in Lebanon. His speech might be timed to take place in parallel with terrorist attacks.
The security services are tracking down jihadi movements between Lebanon and Syria. Security sources told Al-Akhbar that Saudi suspects were crossing through the border town of Ersal to fight in Syria, but did not confirm reports that the Saudis intend to return to Lebanon to carry out suicide attacks here.
The security services did not conceal their concerns regarding the possible use of so-called inghimasi fighters by the jihadis in their attacks. The inghimasi – from Arabic inghimas, plunging into, as in enemy ranks – is a type of suicide attacker who engages in guerilla warfare and does not activate his or her suicide belt except as a last resort.
In other words, the security services fear terrorist attacks against commercial centers or residential areas in specific regions, to cause the greatest number of casualties and cause a much bigger frenzy in the media than suicide attacks would do. In this regard, Al-Akhbar has obtained exclusive information revealing that advanced surveillance cameras were installed at a number of critical buildings nearly a week ago, while existing cameras have been replaced with more sophisticated ones to monitor suspicious movements.
Al Akhbar (January 25, 2014)
Maysam Rizk and Usama al-Qaderi
It seems as if takfiris have managed to put the Future Movement and Hezbollah in the same boat. Future’s officials are now worried about a backlash led by extremists against their “moderate” movement. But in this new battle, the Future Movement lacks a leader; its chief Saad Hariri has been absent for years, living in Paris.
Would Hariri’s “opening” toward Hezbollah put both parties in the same boat against takfiris? For some in the Future Movement, this is quite plausible, mainly after statements and videos that were circulated in Tripoli, lambasting Hariri’s agreement to join a government alongside Hezbollah.
In these statements, Hariri was accused of “selling his own religion and waiving the blood of martyrs so he can reach power." He was also warned from ever “returning to Lebanon."
To add oil to fire, Saida’s fugitive Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir announced via Twitter, “Making concessions before an aggressor and a murderer and accepting to take part in an inclusive cabinet after the assassination of former minister Mohammed Shatah is a defeat and a surrender."
“These threats are very serious,” said Future Movement sources, who revealed that many officials “are taking precautionary security measures because these statements are considered direct threats to their lives.”
They believe that the coming attacks won’t be restricted to Dahiyeh and Hezbollah strongholds. There is a plausible chance that Tariq al-Jdideh and other regions dominated by Hariri sympathizers would also be targeted. “What Dahiyeh is witnessing today due to Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria, may also affect us because we insist on moderation in the face of extremism,” the sources said.
Future officials don’t seem concerned about statements coming from Tripoli, as much as they fear “turbulent acts due to Assir’s reckless behavior, similar to what happened in Abra."
These threats prompted some officials within the Future Movement to criticize Hariri’s positions, as the policy adopted in the last couple of years had favored extremism over moderation “and Assir managed somehow to occupy a certain space within Future Movement sympathizers."
According to critics, the main issue here is that “Hariri still believes that Tripoli and Beirut would be at his beck and call when he returns from his exile in Paris, and he doesn’t quite understand the changes at the political level and on the ground."
They called Hariri to “recalculate his positions in virtue of the changes among Sunnis after the revolution in Syria, amid a lack of funding and services provided by Hariri."
These Future officials hope Hariri will successfully take advantage of the extremists’ outrage. They believe the Future Movement “can reveal extremists’ animosity toward everyone, mainly amid the violence they spread all over the country." However, they stress, “Hariri should also set a line separating concessions from his image as a moderate Sunni leader who is working to spare Lebanon a major explosion.”
Hariri’s TV appearances and tweets are not enough. “The plan he seeks to initiate to counter takfiris cannot be launched from Paris but should be launched from Koraytem."
“He made us a matter of ridicule,” said a Future Movement hawk. Hariri is “crushing the Sunni sect and surrendering in front of the force of arms." They recalled his previous solid positions, saying that once “he got cornered, he was ready to waive."
One official close to the Future Movement said, “The problem is not just convincing our allies about Hariri’s new positions. We are also facing a big problem in convincing our own people about his decision to join a government with Hezbollah.”
According to the source, divergent positions between the base and the command led to tension within the movement. The leadership has been away for about two years and the Future Movement’s central command now realizes its big dilemma.Recently, orders have been given to local officials, mainly in the Bekaa, to restore political activities “but with a new momentum, after the Bekaa command failed on many previous occasions."
However, a prominent Bekaa figure held the central command responsible, saying, “They told us to wait and watch because the public cannot hear or see over the bullets." According to him, this has made Assir a prominent figure today.
Following Hariri’s declaration to join a government with Hezbollah, leading extremists in Sunni towns in the Bekaa attempted to mobilize locals. They said, “The Future Movement doesn’t represent Sunnis but only seeks its own interests” and questioned Hariri’s loyalty to his sect.
They said the Future Movement repeatedly makes concessions “for a few ministerial seats." In the town of Kamed al-Lawz, a local sheikh took advantage of a funeral attended by many mourners to criticize the Future Movement, saying that the Hariri family “shamed us all."
Al Akhbar (January 24, 2014)
The views expressed by Lebanese Future Movement leader MP Saad Hariri in a recent TV interview reinforced among many the belief that the political accord over forming a coalition government is the culmination of regional accords. The theme of these accords – counterterrorism – will be the main if not the only item on the manifesto of Tammam Salam’s government.
The militants in the North Lebanon city of Tripoli are furious. They have been told that the Ministry of Health, since the beginning of 2014, has stopped covering their medical bills in the city’s hospitals. They are also furious because of the roughness the army showed in the last confrontation.
During that confrontation, the army, perhaps for the first time, responded violently to the source of fire, targeting the so-called “alleyway commanders” of the militants directly. The army even tried to bring in tanks to Bab al-Tabbaneh, before it named the suspects accused of assaulting its soldiers in an official statement, in what may be a hint for other security services to arrest them rather than continuing to give them cover.
At the same time, the militants in Tripoli have been informed that army intelligence chief for North Lebanon, Gen. Amer al-Hassan, during a security meeting at Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s home to discuss the new round of violence, had a markedly different attitude. Hassan voiced sharp criticisms against some of those present, and made threats against the militants.
Add to this the militants’ major disillusionment with Saad Hariri, after the latter gave a green light to security services to crackdown on anyone disturbing the peace in the city. Then there’s the fact that retired General Ashraf Rifi could not be reached for the past two days, ever since Rifi called on the supporters of the "Cedar Revolution" to reassess the current stage, in a message posted on the Lebanese Forces website.
The militants are two kinds: Salafis and non-Salafis. The city had been expecting a battle between the army and the first kind, but the most recent round was with the non-Salafis.
It is in this latter category that alleyway commanders like Abu Khalil al-Hallaq and Abu Jamal al-Nhaili can be classed. They operate behind the cemetery in Bab al-Tabbaneh, in a street commonly known in Tripoli as Captain Street. There are rumors in the city that Nhaili was behind the viral video that contained threats to Hariri recently. These two commanders, like most militants operating on the front lines with Jabal Mohsen, count themselves as supporters of General Rifi.
Three years ago, the alleyway fighters did not number more than 200, and their job was to fire their weapons from the balconies of their homes at buildings in Jabal Mohsen. Not one of them was a “full-time” fighter. Today, there is a “squadron” of militants in almost every alleyway, led by what best resembles an emir, or commander.
Loyalties in the alleyways overlap. The Zahra family fighters, who are active in Bab al-Tabbaneh, are loyal to Rifi, too, and so is Emad al-Riz and many others who receive backing and encouragement from the former chief of the Internal Security Forces.
Others, like Saad Masri, who was involved in the latest round of fighting, have mixed loyalties for both Rifi and Prime Minister Mikati. Surreally, Mikati admitted in the last meeting at his home to lending financial support to Masri, but said, “I wasn’t the one who bought him a gun worth more than $60,000. I don’t know where they got all this!”
Talal Issa, another militant commander operating near Tripoli’s bazaar, also has overlapping loyalties to both Rifi and Mikati. Ziad Allouki is affiliated with Rifi, but he also makes room for the wishes of Mikati and the Karami family, as they both command considerable support in his turf.
In the district of Mankoubine, commanders like Tawfiq al-Shaar (Abu Mustafa) are closer to Mikati than to others. The consensus is that Mikat is like “Santa Claus,” he gives without return, especially since the militants cannot vote due to criminal convictions.
In truth, Mikati did nothing more than use money, instead of the powers of his office, to buy these militants off. While this is bad, others have done worse things. Others have created, trained, and armed the comprehensive – though chaotic – paramilitary structure that exists today in Tripoli.
In private meetings, MP Walid Jumblatt has said that his attacks against the Information Branch followed this security agency’s collusion with what he called “the madness in Tripoli.” The Information Branch was headed by Chaim Araji, until Rifi suspected the latter was collaborating with Mikati, and replaced him with Mohammed Arab, an officer fully loyal to Rifi.
It follows from the above that the non-Salafi militants are not a real danger. Indeed, if the Future Movement decides in earnest to de-escalate, then Rifi can pacify them just as fast as he can mobilize them. But if there is no decision to de-escalate, then Rifi will not order them to stand down, and the army will not seriously crack down on them. The farce of the past three years will just continue.
Instead, the real battle, in the event a decision is made to “cleanse” Tripoli, would take place between the army and the takfiri elements in the Salafi camp. In the last round of fighting, this faction stayed put, and did not fire a single bullet. We are not talking here about Salafi clerics like Bilal Duqmaq, Dai al-Islam al-Shahhal, and Omar Fustuq – who don’t have a single fighter – but about four or five groups led by people like Ali Hajar, Hussam al-Sabbagh, and Firas al-Ali.
Throughout the past few days, these extremist groups restrained themselves, because, according to one activist in their ranks, they knew they would be scapegoated in the current regional political bazaar. The reason for their restraint is their fear that the army might be looking for a pretext to repeat in Tripoli what happened in Abra with the supporters of Salafi cleric Ahmad al-Assir.
For years, these Salafi militants have strapped explosive belts around their waists, but they do not have access to the kind of funding or advanced weaponry as their comrades in the “alleyway squadrons.” In fact, most of them are merchants and shop owners from the city.
In various discussions with them, one comes out with a strong impression that they are extremely cautious folk. So much so that they have been stringently disciplining anyone in their ranks who dares raise the banners of al-Nusra Front or other organizations designated as terror groups worldwide. Meanwhile, three specific issues dominate their calculations:
One, the presidential elections around the corner. This stirs bitter memories for them, since it was the Nahr al-Bared conflict (in their view) that had paved the way for General Michel Suleiman to Baabda. Similarly, the battle of Abra helped secure an extension of army commander Jean Kahwaji’s term, as they say.
Two, Saad Hariri is seeking to mend his image before the international community, as a moderate anti-terror figure, and as collaboration with Islamists has turned from an element of strength to an element of suspicion and censure.
A former Tripoli MP said Hariri refused to sacrifice his Islamist allies before, but that today, the impetus for this is regional and there is no room for sharing power with the Islamists. At the same time, Hariri would benefit from not being directly in power to keep his distance from any potential consequences for the liquidation of yesterday’s allies.
Three, there is a 180-degree shift in the Shia attitude. Seven years ago, the Shia political forces tried to draw red lines over the storming of Nahr al-Bared, but now, the Shia forces have an unrivaled enthusiasm for cracking down on extremists and destroying their nurturing environment.
There might never be a battle between the army and the extremists, which could allow the latter to expand and attract “alleyway commanders” to their side.
But if it does take place, the battle would probably see eight or nine fronts similar to the Abra front simultaneously, in addition to dozens of secondary skirmishes in other neighborhoods. This would be a bigger and more violent battle than Nahr al-Bared, given the population density and the near impossibility of evacuating non-combatants, according to one security source.
But ultimately, according to a minister in the caretaker government, success in such a battle depends on not having any foreign elements, like Palestinian factions, Syrian factions, or al-Qaeda, entering the fray. He cites the high number of Syrian refugees in the city, and the relative ease at which hundreds of them could be recruited to fight.
Al Akhbar (January 22, 2014)
Geneva II is a surreal conference, not much different than the surrealism of the top artists who once lived in the magnificent city of Montreux, Switzerland. The official Syrian delegation heads to the conference to assert the regime’s legitimacy in the fight against terror, only to discover that Saudi and international traps have been laid for it and its ally Iran. The opposition delegation heads to Montreux seeking to delegitimize the regime, only to find out that an international plot has been hatched to end its role and lay the foundations of a more representative opposition framework for future negotiations.
Ultimately, the photo-op will be the most important outcome, with a picture of the regime and the opposition sitting around the same table.
Tremendous US pressure was brought to bear to persuade the coalition to attend. As a result, the coalition splintered, and those within the opposition grouping who agreed to attend were an unlikely alliance of pro-Saudi elements, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Michel Kilo’s faction. Some have jokingly called Kilo, the former communist, “our sheikh,” since he went to Riyadh and failed to object to the implementation of Sharia and attacked the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar. Opposition sources say that Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi spy chief, met with Kilo twice, the first time for eight hours after he dispatched his private jet to bring him from Istanbul to Jeddah, and the second for four hours.
US Ambassador Robert Ford explicitly told the opposition: Agree on whomever you want however you want, but you must attend. Indeed, Washington hopes to achieve something before the end of Barack Obama’s second term, but also before Ford’s mission ends.
But there had to be a price, that came on a golden platter. The UN came out with the “present” when Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon withdrew his invitation to Iran to attend Geneva II. This happened under pressure from Saudi and France, according to what is being said in Geneva. This belief is reinforced by reports that Russia and Washington had both agreed to invite Iran.
Iran’s name was even put on the conference table. Suddenly, the invitation was rescinded. It was a big slap in the face to the international organizations. But that’s OK; slaps will not be in short supply in Montreux and Geneva.
The second surprise came from Greece. It was soon revealed that Greece’s detention of the Syrian delegation’s plane was the result of European pressures on Athens. Between the surprises of Iran and Greece, a report was leaked on what has been described as systematic crimes by the regime against detainees. All this is meant to weaken the position of the regime and embarrass it ahead of the international conference.
Some said that withdrawing the invitation relieves Iran. Iran would be free in not accepting any of the conference’s outcomes. In effect, Iran paved the way for this with official statements on January 21.
Ban Ki-moon and international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi tried to persuade Tehran to consent to the principles of the Geneva I communique before attending Geneva II. Tehran dug in its heels. So did Russia, and Bashar al-Assad before them both. There can be no discussions whatsoever about the powers of the president or about transferring these powers to a transitional government. This is a red line for Damascus, and will remain a red line, even if it causes Geneva II to implode.
Does Geneva II pave the way for the elimination of the opposition coalition? This is a distinct possibility. Russian officials have candidly told opposition figures from outside the coalition: Don’t bank too much on the first episode of Geneva; there is more to come. Some suspect that Moscow and Washington have agreed to let the first stage pass in any way possible, with Russian pledges to expand the opposition framework in the coming phase.
There is another view holding that the hard core of the Friends of Syria group, which comprises 11 countries, has decided that the opposition’s delegation to Geneva II should be malleable so as to forestall any dissent. One figure in the opposition from outside the coalition went as far as saying, “We no longer trust anything. It seems that the Americans and the Russians have decided to refloat the regime. They want to show the opposition as fragmented to make it easier to support the regime against terror in the next phase. Everything else is rhetoric.”
The residents of Montreux are oblivious to what is happening in their city. Sitting in their homes, they see the delegations coming to disturb the calm in the city that lies between the mountains, opposite a marvelous lake.
Between Montreux and Geneva, there are tunnels that go beneath the mighty Alps. Whenever a visitor exits a tunnel, he will see the fir, cypress, and pine trees standing tall under what is left of the last snowstorm. And whenever a visitor leaves a tunnel, he will glimpse the sunlight, shyly peering from behind the clouds. By contrast, the participants in Geneva II don’t know where the negotiations’ tunnel will lead.
Are regional and international conditions ripe for a settlement? Or will there be more blood, fire, bombings, and destruction at the end of the tunnel, before a deal can be reached? From the counterattack against Assad, Iran, Hezbollah, Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen, it appears that the battle is still very much raging.
The conference participants envy the people of Montreux for the splendor of the place. Here, the people have only seen the scenes of carnage on television, or not at all. The music and art festivals are much more appealing to them than the delegations that came to negotiate, without being convinced about the worth of these negotiations to begin with.
The Daily Star (Lebanese daily close to the March-14 coalition)
Hussein Dakroub (January 25, 2014)
Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam intends to form a fait accompli government after intensive efforts failed to resolve the row over the rotation of key ministerial portfolios in a national unity Cabinet, political sources said Friday.
However, the sources said behind-the-scene contacts were still ongoing in a last-ditch attempt to reach an agreement over such a Cabinet based on an 8-8-8 lineup.
Hezbollah, meanwhile, warned against attempts to exclude MP Michel Aoun’s Free Patrotic Movement from the new Cabinet.
“If an agreement is not reached in the next couple of days over the proposed 8-8-8 Cabinet lineup, Salam is poised to form a fait accompli government, most likely a nonpartisan government,” a senior political source told The Daily Star.
The source said there was “a slim chance” the ongoing consultations between Salam and the Hezbollah-led March 8 coalition would soften Aoun’s stance on rotating key ministerial portfolios.
Aoun opposes the idea of a ministerial rotation, which is upheld by Salam and backed by President Michel Sleiman, because it will deprive him of two key portfolios: the Energy Ministry currently held by his son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, and the Telecommunications Ministry held by Nicolas Sehnaoui, who also belongs to the FPM.
Aoun has demanded that Bassil retain the Energy Ministry in the new Cabinet, in addition to another sovereign ministerial portfolio to be allotted to his bloc.
Salam, who has adopted the principle of the rotation of ministerial portfolios among parties and sects since he was appointed prime minister-designate in April, has strongly rejected Aoun’s demand.
Aoun’s stance has stymied mediation efforts on the Cabinet formation exerted mainly by Hezbollah, caretaker Health Minister Ali Hasan Khalil from Speaker Nabih Berri’s parliamentary bloc, and caretaker Social Affairs Minister Wael Abu Faour, who belongs to MP Walid Jumblatt’s centrist bloc.
Abu Faour met Salam Friday in the latest bid to end the rift over the rotation of ministerial portfolios. Hussein Khalil, a political aide to Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, also met Salam for the same purpose Thursday.
A source close to Salam said consultations to overcome the last remaining hurdle posed by Aoun’s rejection of a ministerial rotation were still ongoing.
But FPM sources denied that any negotiations were being held to clinch a deal over a national unity Cabinet.
Because the negotiations have reached a dead end, the sources said they expected the new Cabinet decrees to be issued by the president would give Aoun a considerable share of ministerial portfolios as promised by Sleiman and Salam.
The sources said they could not predict how Aoun’s allies, namely Berri, Hezbollah, the Marada Movement and the Tashnag Party, would react if the FPM leader decided to withdraw his ministers from the new Cabinet.
Berri, Hezbollah and March 8 politicians have repeatedly warned Sleiman and Salam of the dire consequences of forming a fait accompli government – their term for a neutral or nonpartisan Cabinet – on the country’s security and stability, already threatened by the repercussions of the war in Syria.
Salam was reported to have given the March 8 coalition a Sunday deadline to accept his proposed 8-8-8 Cabinet lineup, or else he would form a fait accompli government.
MP Mohammad Raad, head of Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc, warned against attempts to exclude Aoun’s bloc from the new Cabinet. He also warned against forming a fait accompli government.
“We must not rush matters in the Cabinet formation. Excluding a major component from the Cabinet at this stage, especially since it attains a heavy representation for the Christians, will cast doubts about the constitutionality of the Cabinet,” Raad told a memorial ceremony in the southern town of Ghaziyeh, in a clear reference to Aoun’s parliamentary Change and Reform bloc. “Therefore, we must give ourselves a chance to exert sincere efforts in order to accommodate everyone [in the Cabinet] and reach agreement with everyone,” he said. “We don’t want a neutral, illusive government. We see no benefit from a so-called fait accompli government,” Raad said. “We stress the need for an all-embracing political government because we feel the danger of disintegration awaiting us at the hands of terrorists and takfiris,” he added.
AFP (France-Press Agency, January 25, 2014)
Anyone travelling from the UK to Syria faces arrest on their return, a senior police chief warned Saturday, fearing they pose a terror threat to Britain.
Manchester's police chief Peter Fahy, who leads the Association of Chief Police Officers' "Prevent" counter-terror strategy, said there was a "huge concern" about people travelling to Syria to fight in its civil war.
Sixteen people have been arrested on suspicion of terror offences this month after returning from Syria, compared with 24 in the whole of last year, the BBC reported.
Syria "is an incredibly dangerous place and you will be arrested and stopped at the border if you try and come back," Fahy told BBC radio.
"We've stopped quite a number of people because we're very, very clear about what will happen."
A defector from the hardline Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham warned this week that Al-Qaeda was training hundreds of British people fighting in Syria to become jihadists and urging them to carry out attacks when they return home.
The defector, known as Murad, told The Daily Telegraph newspaper that other recruits from Europe and the United States were also being trained to make car bombs before being sent home to form terror cells.
Fahy said there was "a real worry about those who may be radicalized, who may have been engaged in terrorist training.
"If people are engaging in terrorism or planning terrorism or fundraising for terrorism then that is clearly against the law," he added.
Fahy said the police were concerned about the welfare of young people who have travelled to Syria and said they could be put on special programs.
He said police would work with youth organizations and schools "essentially to make sure these people haven't been affected and try and make sure they're not a threat to this country."
The "Prevent" strategy provides practical help to stop people from being drawn towards terror and provides advice and support.
Britain's intelligence services estimate that around 500 British fighters are currently in Syria.
The Times newspaper said Saturday that security screening at airports has been increased, with the focus on people flying in from Istanbul, a staging point on the route into Syria across the Turkish border. Two British women were on Wednesday charged with raising money suspected of funding terrorism in Syria, Scotland Yard police headquarters announced.
Two British men were charged last week with travelling to Syria for terror purposes, while another man was arrested on suspicion of attending a terror camp in the war-ravaged country.
CNN.com (American TV website, January 24, 2014)
By Kapil Komireddi
"The French, British and Americans have no understanding of what's happening here," a foreign diplomat posted in Syria told me in the summer of 2012. At the time it was still possible for an outsider like me, having recently arrived in Syria from London, to imagine Bashar al-Assad's imminent departure. Even a U.S. State Department official had dismissed his regime as "a dead man walking."
But non-Westerners who had spent years in Syria were less hopeful. They rejected reports in the American press prophesying the demise of the government. Al-Assad, they said, was popular among the minorities. Besides, the army's loyalty to him was near-absolute.
Today, Bashar al-Assad is more powerful than he was 15 months ago. For all the predictions of his impending overthrow, his Baathist machine remains the only stable feature in Syria. Despite the carnage, daily life in Damascus, al-Assad's bastion, largely continues as before. There have been no major defections, and most importantly the Syrian Arab Army, despite suffering more than 30,000 fatalities, continues to pledge its allegiance to al-Assad. In the past two months, it has reclaimed from the opposition territory outside Damascus.
Yet, instead of recalibrating its response, Washington remains tethered to its same narrow policy goal: al-Assad's removal from power. John Kerry devoted his speech Wednesday in Switzerland, where representatives of the Syrian government and some opposition groups have assembled to hold peace talks, to reiterating this demand. This is an unrealistic expectation. Far from achieving al-Assad's exit, it will prolong the violence. Syrian government representatives did not go to the negotiating table to throw away his gains. The so-called Geneva Communiqué that forms the basis of Kerry's demand does not in fact call for Assad's removal.
And he is unlikely to budge without a credible threat of force from the United States.
Kerry claimed this week that such a threat was still "on the table". In truth, Washington's options are severely limited by the embarrassing fact that the opposition that has come to Switzerland to wrest power from al-Assad does not have a significant constituency in Syria. Its members hold little sway over the mujahideen fighting government forces.
Much of the territory outside the government's control is held by groups linked to al Qaeda, and al Qaeda is opposed to the peace talks. It is aware that it could emerge as the unintended beneficiary of any Western attempt to dislodge al-Assad.
Even the "moderate" elements of the opposition appear to be beyond Washington's control. The peace talks in Switzerland were deemed crucial by Washington. Yet members of the opposition repeatedly threatened to derail them if their demand to exclude Iran from the process was not met. Kerry had been attempting for weeks to get a seat for Tehran at the talks because he grasped that, as a regional power that has abetted Syria in its civil war, Iran's presence was vital to progress. This irked Saudi Arabia, the Sunni theocracy that is alarmed by the thaw in relations between Tehran and Washington.
Saudi Arabia's intervention in Syria has always been part of its effort to blunt Iran's influence and cripple what it sees is a Shia corridor of power in the Middle East. As the principal backer of the opposition, Saudi Arabia has played a key role in transforming Syria into a haven for foreign jihadists cut from the same ideological cloth as the men who carried out the 9/11 attacks. Iran hurt its own interests by refusing to adhere to preconditions, which in Tehran's view bound it to an unfavorable outcome -- a Saudi-backed transitional government -- even before the talks had begun. But its abrupt exclusion from the peace talks is a triumph of Saudi policy.
All of this explains why al-Assad, despite having presided over the slaughter of so many Syrians, was able to ridicule the negotiations as a "joke"." His decision to dispatch a delegation to participate in them was in deference to his sponsors in Russia who, having labored hard to halt the threat of a U.S. military strike against their client last year, are eager to demonstrate the utility of diplomacy. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, was quick to cast the opening day as a success. "For the first time in three years," he said, "the sides -- for all their accusations -- agreed to sit down at the negotiating table."
But the framework for the negotiations already looks obsolete. Hammered out in 2012 by Kofi Annan, then the U.N. peace envoy to Syria, its terms -- calling for a transitional governing body by mutual consent of all parties, a national dialogue, free elections, and a comprehensive review of the constitution -- hark back to a time when al-Assad seemed weak, the opposition was unified, and the phrase "Arab Spring" could be spoken hopefully in the West. The major powers that helped forge the Geneva Communiqué, perhaps anticipating al-Assad's fall, refused to place their weight behind it when it mattered. Annan quit his job in frustration.
To ordinary Syrians, the ongoing talks in Switzerland look like a meaningless sideshow. Al-Assad, feeling triumphant, refuses to go. An internally riven opposition refuses to temper its demands. The West, unwilling to intervene militarily and incapable yet of forcing change diplomatically, watches with impotent rage. Al Qaeda, once enfeebled, looks on expectantly.
Syria is now a homicidal theater for a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran -- the Middle East's Sunni and Shia powers. A dialogue between the two may do more to halt the fighting in Syria than negotiations between Assad and his Syrian adversaries operating from abroad. Washington's energies are better spent in nudging the two rivals in that direction.
More immediately, the United States' ambition should be to end the violence. Rather than push for al-Assad's departure, it should work toward obtaining a pragmatic power-sharing deal centered on reconciliation rather than regime change. Finally, it should press its allies in Saudi Arabia and Qatar to drop their support for radical Islamists. If not, the flames that are now devouring Syria may soon engulf the West.