Monday February 3, 2014, no169
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 war against Syria and the illusion of compromise
By Ghaleb Kandil
Some politicians believe that Russia and the United States agreed on compromises in the region, and that everything that happens politically and militarily in Syria is part of a scenario to implement these arrangements.
In fact, international relations are going through a transitional period that will see the outlines of a new balance of power. These new equilibrium were able to emerge through the resistance of the Syrian state against the colonial aggression led by the United States. It is clear that the US unilateral post-domination era is under construction. The rules of the new Cold War are not yet definitively drawn. Recognition by the United States at the end of its unilateral hegemony is accompanied by continued attempts to influence the new equations that are emerging.
It is in this context that fit US and Western pressures and interference in the backyard of Russia. Ukraine crisis is the best example of this attitude, as well as the continuation of the partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia, to prolong the bloodshed in Syria, in the hope of changes for the benefit their agents of balance of power relations underlie all coming political compromise.
These are the realities emerging from the Geneva II Conference, where Americans have negotiated indirectly with the Syrian official delegation, through a delegation established by its ambassador in Damascus Robert Ford. It is in this same context that was taken the decision to exclude Iran from this conference, which was a message to Russia, worthy of the time of the unilateral hegemony through orders given to the Secretary General of the United Nations. The reform of this organization and the rebalancing of relations within it are also unavoidable conditions for establishing a multipolar world.
In this transitional period, the confrontation continues to develop new relations between international powers, and Syria is the mirror of the new international order. The belief in the existence of supposed international arrangements and a serious American will to fight against terrorism, is a pure illusion. Worse, it can distort the calculations and produce erroneous analyzes.
These are the United States, which exported to Syria qaïdiste terrorism in cooperation with the Saudi regime, Turkey and Qatar. It was Washington who hosted and hatched the Muslim Brotherhood, and it continues to do so even though it knows that the brotherhood promotes takfirist thought and terrorism in the Muslim world. The U.S. refusal to consider as a priority the fight against terrorism in Syria, as claimed by the Syrian official delegation, is an admission of Washington's determination to use terrorism to bleed the Syrian state. The arguments presented by Barak Obama, in an interview at the New Yorker, to explain the reasons for its support to Islamic Front, illustrate perfectly this reality. He described as "jihadist" the fighters of this terrorist organization calling to make a distinction between them and Al-Qaeda. The Front is a pure Saudi-American product that is only active inside Syria and does not constitute a terrorist threat, as claimed by the Foreign Policy magazine in an article published few days ago.
The next step will be characterized by an upsurge in fighting on the ground and the pursuit of American, Saudi, Qatari, French et British support for extremist movements. Despite the last maneuver of Recep Tayyeb Erdogan during his visit to Tehran, which was not accompanied by any concrete measures on the ground, Turkey will also continue its support to terrorists.
The U.S. administration has acknowledged the failure of his bet to destroy the Syrian state. Its new strategy is to permanently install lines of demarcation between the Syrian Arab Army and the rebels, through a massive support in weapons, money, human reinforcements and technical advice. Certain circles in Washington openly mention the dismantlement of Syria by separating the provinces of Idleb, Aleppo, Raqqa, Deir Ezzor and Hasakah, from the central state . Other projects talk about the division of Syria into three regions: the first, under the control of the central state and its armed forces; the second under the hegemony of armed groups; and the third under the domination of the Kurds.
The Syrian Arab Army is therefore fighting for the unity of Syria and for its independence. Americans and their agents will discover that all their plans are only pure illusion, because when it is the unity and independence of their country which is at stake, the Syrian people and its army are willing to make all the sacrifices that are necessary.
Gebran Bassil, Caretaker Energy Minister (Free Patriotic Movement)
«We should reduce the difficulties in forming a new Cabinet such as the agreement to postpone discussion on the government’s policy statement rather than adding more obstacles such as the rotation of ministerial portfolios. The principle of rotating ministerial portfolios is a sound policy if it is adopted by consensus and consultations ... [and] at the beginning of a new Parliament or presidential term. If there were good intensions, the rotation would have been based on consensus and included all ministerial posts but the intentions aim at excluding not only a person or a political movement but also an entire sect. It is strategic for Lebanon and Christians because it entails international relations stolen from the Christians 25 years ago. It also includes a balanced development that was absent from Christian areas for 25 years. Therefore, it is a primary ministry par excellence and should not be a target of exclusion and it is the right of this sect to be trusted with Lebanon's oil for an interim period. Is it acceptable to allocate the Interior Ministry to a sect in order to reassure it, allocate the Finance Ministry to a specific sect to compensate for it or allocate the Defense Ministry to a party to protect a grant for the Army?. The issue is now bigger than forming a government but it is concerned with constitutionality and trust, which if breached would require not only a new social contract but a whole new nation. Deviating from the National Covenant will lead to Sunni-Shiite strife and a conflict between Muslims and Christians in the events Muslims fail to correct this deviation. Consensus is at the heart of the Taef Accord which also stipulated fairness and equality ... The Constitution also stipulates that the absence of sectarian balance can [legally] force the collapse of the government. The prime minister-designate is not the one in charge with forming a Cabinet and cannot impose or threaten a certain reality.»
Samir Mazloum, Maronite bishop
«The presidential election is an absolute priority for the Maronite Patriarchate. All deadlines are important but nothing should prevent the holding of presidential elections. If a political party with a large parliamentary bloc, such as the Free Patriotic Movement, is not represented in the government, this means that the government is not in conformity with national unity. The Christian community must be represented qualitatively in terms of people and ministries that will be assigned, as well as other communities.»
Samir Geagea, Lebanese Forces leader
«The Mars-8 coalition prevents the formation of a national unity government, intentionally or not, because of the will of Hezbollah to stand alongside Aoun. President Michel Sleiman and Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam should not lose any minute and should exercise their constitutional prerogatives to form a neutral government. Such a measure has become an urgent necessity in the interest of Lebanon.»
Elie Ferzli, Former Vice-president of the Lebanese Parliament
«If the new government has an age of two months only, the rotation at the ministerial portfolios is then directed against the Energy Minister Gebran Bassil, who represents the largest Christian political force in the country. The block of General Michel Aoun has 20 of the 27 Maronites members of Parliament. Bassil represents the Free Patriotic Movement. We must respect the Christian component of Lebanese partnership. Michel Aoun has the sovereign right to decide on portfolios allocated to Christians. Neutrality does not exist in Lebanon and Prime Minister-designate, Tammam Salam, is not neutral.»
A car bomb killed at least four people Saturday near a gas station in eastern Lebanon's town of Hermel, according to caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel. Speaking to al-Manar television channel, the minister stated that the blast was carried out by a suicide bomber, which also injured at least 15 people. "At least four people were killed and more than 15 wounded, two or three of them in critical condition," he said. "We think it is a suicide attack," he added. However, Hermel's Municipality Head, Subhi Saqr, stated to the Lebanese National News Agency (NNA) that at least 28 were wounded. Furthermore, the proximity of the explosion, which took place around 6:00 pm, to the Al-Aytam gas station had sparked a huge blaze that hindered the arrival of emergency services, according to statements by a security source to NNA. According to the Lebanese National News Agency, the blast was also in proximity of a school hosting orphans. The al-Mabarrat school confirmed that none of their resident students were hurt Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati condemned the attack. "Once again, the hands of treason target a Lebanese region and claim the lives of innocent citizens," he said. Tensions surfaced elsewhere in Lebanon after the explosion. Residents of al-Labweh blocked the road to Ersal in protest of the recent explosion at Hermel. While in Beirut, a hand grenade was thrown at the Al-Manar's headquarters, according to a report by al-Mayadeen television channel. A car bomb had previously hit Hermel on January 16, killing five and injuring 40. The previous attack had been claimed by the Lebanon branch of the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front.
Ad Diyar daily reported that the commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces, Commander General Jean Kahwaji, went to Riyadh at the head of a delegation of senior officers for talks focused on the delivery of French weapons for a value of $ 3 billion paid by Saudi Arabia.
The French Justice suspended on Friday a decision of the Communist mayor of Bagnolet, who made an honorary citizenship of the Lebanese militant Georges Ibrahim Abdallah, sentenced to life in France. The Administrative Court of Montreuil (Seine-Saint-Denis) issued an order for immediate suspension of that decision. On December 11, 2013 the communist mayor of Bagnolet, Marc Everbecq, awarded the title of honorary citizen to Georges Ibrahim Abdallah, following the example of two other communist municipalities in the Pas-de-Calais.
As Safir (Lebanese daily, Arab nationalist)
Imad Marmal (January 31, 2014)
The issue of the ministerial rotation opened all the wounds of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). It is no longer a matter of ministerial portfolios only. The controversy on the principle of alternation woke all latent fears of Rabié, whether those on his ambiguous relationship with allies or opponents. The FPM has the feeling of being disappointed by the allies who went too far in the negotiations before agreeing with the Future on government composition, sparing no previous commitments with the FPM. Some of the Aoun supporters detailed facts about the agreements that have been concluded in their camp, following the designation of Tammam Salam for the formation of the government, and would have involved the maintenance of the Ministry of Energy in the hands of the FPM. If the government agreement sealed between Amal, Hezbollah and the Future Movement was necessary and vital to counter the danger of sectarian fitna, why the Christian partner was excluded from such agreement that is of great strategic importance? ask Aoun supporters.
An Nahar (Lebanese daily, close to March-14 Coalition)
Rosanna Bou Moucef (January 30, 2014)
The speech on the state of the union, delivered by Barack Obama, brought nothing new to those who follow American politics. The president reiterated his intention to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year. After Afghanistan, Obama outlined the priorities of his country as follows: the continuation of the war against Al-Qaeda, in cooperation with the countries where the organization operates, and the continuation of diplomatic efforts within the framework of Israeli peace talks-Palestinian; support for a Syria without dictatorship and without fear of terrorism, and its announcement that he will use veto against any act of Congress imposing new sanctions on Iran during the negotiations with Tehran on its nuclear project.
In foreign policy, Obama has focused on the option of diplomacy and the refusal of direct military intervention, stressing the importance of diplomacy backed by pressure in the area of negotiation with Iran. This position confirms the guidelines enshrined in the abandonment by Obama of the military option against the Syrian regime and the Libyan solution in Syria.
This year is very important for the region (Syrian crisis, the Iranian nuclear issue, Israeli- Palestinian negotiations), but this was not reflected in Obama's speech.
There is an increasing fear of a Russian capacity for better management of the Syrian file that the US. Ultimately, Washington may be resigned to accept that the search for a solution to the Syrian crisis is entrusted to Moscow.
Al Akhbar (Lebanese Daily close to the Lebanese Resistance)
(February 1, 2014)
Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces (ISF) have circulated a warning that Prime Minister Najib Mikati has been named as a possible target for assassination. Some security officials have downplayed the threat, but others are taking it seriously, given al-Qaeda’s increased activity in Lebanon, particularly in the north and the Bekaa. Is Mikati now on an al-Qaeda hit list? A memo dispatched by the chief of the Government Guard, states: “Information has come to light that an explosive charge has been planted in a champagne-color Kia SUV, driven by a Syrian suicide bomber named Abu al-Adnan from the Khaled bin al-Walid Brigades of the Islamic Front. The car might target a senior political figure in Tripoli or Beirut, and has started moving closer to the target. There are [also] reports about a black bomb-rigged Honda that might be detonated in Tripoli near the house of the figure in question.” When the memo was first publicized, it was thought to be one of a dozen similar reports circulated by the security services to their units, based on tips from informants or “technical sources,” like phone and electronic surveillance. But upon closer examination, it can be seen that it was the Directorate General of the ISF itself that issued the warning, while the original information had named the target as Mikati. Furthermore, it appears that the Government Guard has stepped up its security measures over the past two days in the vicinity of Mikati’s home in Tripoli, and those of his family. Some of the security officials we spoke to downplayed the report, saying, “We know that this is not a credible threat.” But if so, then why was the information circulated? One security official answered, “We cannot afford to be complacent about such information. We circulate it to fulfill our duties and allow precautionary measures to be taken.”
The report identified the Islamic Front as the party planning to assassinate Mikati. The Islamic Front is a Syrian opposition group that was formed two months ago, merging a number of Syrian opposition factions. The backbone of the Front is made up of Salafi fighters and clerics, with various political affiliations. Some are backed by Turkey, others by Qatar, but a majority of them are closely linked to Saudi intelligence.
Some political sources have found reason for pause in this information, especially since it is emerging in parallel with an incitement campaign led by the Future Movement – and Saudi Arabia – in North Lebanon against Mikati, even though he resigned as prime minister more than 10 months ago, in deference to a Saudi desire to remove Hezbollah from the government. Sources said that Saudi Arabia’s doors remain closed to Mikati.
Incitement in the north is not limited to Mikati. Prominent clerics in Tripoli have also complained about receiving death threats from Salafi extremists affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Clerics and security officials reckoned that the threat is serious because it comes at a time when al-Qaeda affiliated groups are operating freely in the north and Bekaa. In some areas, for example, armed militants from al-Qaeda affiliates like al-Nusra Front and ISIS now appear publicly, from Tripoli to Akkar, all the way to Ersal.
These areas, despite the Future Movement’s clout, are now practically in the hands of extremist groups, including those close to al-Qaeda. Indeed, on the ground, the Future Movement’s strength in Tripoli is in decline. People previously thought to be supporters of Future are now closer to the discourse of al-Qaeda. Similarly in Ersal, mayor Ali al-Houjeiri and other Future-affiliated figures no longer control things on the ground, and have long been overtaken by al-Nusra- and ISIS-affiliated groups.
Sources close to the security establishment and Islamist sources say that ISIS has decided to expand into Lebanon. ISIS’ bid has been reinforced following the disputes among jihadi groups in Syria, for example, between ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, and al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani.
Twitter user @wikibaghdady, who has been leaking confidential information about ISIS for weeks, has mentioned that Baghdadi wants to expand his group and gather pledges of allegiance from all around the world, with the first logical destination after Iraq and Syria being Lebanon. Al-Qaeda’s successes in carrying out suicide bombings and other attacks in Bekaa and Beirut – against mostly civilian targets – has also helped ISIS’ bid. Al-Qaeda’s affiliates believe that by merely starting a battle with Hezbollah in Lebanon, jihadis everywhere will flock to the country.
Meanwhile, reports have surfaced regarding Lebanese Salafi groups heading to Syria to receive the approval of jihadi groups there to begin operating in Lebanon. A group led by a North Lebanon-man identified as A. M. reportedly went to Syria to obtain ISIS’ blessing, before returning to Tripoli.
Al Akhbar (January 31, 2014)
A primary round of investigations into Omar al-Atrash established him as a suspect in a string of suicide bombings and attacks in Lebanon’s Bekaa, Dahiyeh, and Saida. Atrash’s statements provided invaluable information, as the detained cleric allegedly confessed to transporting two Saudi suicide bombers, who are still at large, to Beirut. Atrash has now been officially charged, paving the way for further questioning.
On January 30, an official statement by Lebanon’s army command confirmed previous press reports regarding Atrash’s confessions to his role in the recent wave of deadly bombings in Lebanon. Atrash has been referred to a military court, which charged him over his alleged role in the attacks.
Al-Akhbar learned that the military court intends to request the intelligence directorate to expand the scope of the investigations into Atrash. According to informed sources, the information the suspect may be in possession of cannot be extracted from him in just a few days of investigations.
Atrash reportedly spoke at length during his interrogation about his role in the terrorist bombings in Lebanon. The cleric also revealed some secrets about the work of jihadi organizations, but many details need to be followed up and verified. It is understood that there have been talks with the Ministry of Justice and the military court to get their consent to keeping Atrash in the custody of army intelligence for a longer period of time.
According to the same sources, Atrash was apprehended while army intelligence was in pursuit of a Saudi national, who, according to US intelligence tips, had entered Lebanon to carry out a major terrorist attack. During the search for the Saudi, information surfaced that made Atrash a suspect.
Atrash was subsequently arrested. Shortly after, he admitted his intent to move the Saudi national, who remains at large, to the capital. Atrash also confessed that he had previously brought another Saudi to Beirut, revealing that both of the Saudis were commissioned in Syria to carry out two suicide attacks in areas with sizeable Hezbollah influence.
Atrash also confessed that the registration papers found in his possession belonged to cars in the process of being moved to Beirut, to be handed over to suicide bombers for detonation in Dahiyeh or other areas. The suspect also said he was helping with logistics, including transferring funds.
The sources said Atrash disclosed information about certain events, details of which had been hitherto secret, including facts like:
– Atrash transported to Beirut the two suicide bombers who attacked the Iranian embassy, handing them over to the Palestinian fugitive Naim Abbas. Abbas operates from Palestinian refugee camps, including Ain al-Hilweh in South Lebanon.
– Atrash transported one of the suicide bombers involved in the Haret Hreik bombings to Khaldeh, also handing him over to Abbas.
– Atrash sent one of the suicide bombers using a microbus from Bekaa to Beirut, where Abbas was waiting for him. Abbas then moved the bomber to another location, where he gave him the explosive-rigged vehicle and an explosive belt.
– He transferred funds to Abbas, which he obtained from inside Syria.
– The two suicide bombers who blew themselves up at Lebanese army checkpoints in Awwali and Saida, and who until now had not been identified, were Qatari nationals, whom Atrash helped move from Bekaa to Beirut.
– The suicide bomber in the recent attack in Hermel was probably the brother of a Lebanese national who blew himself up in Syria a while ago.
Investigations into Atrash revealed Abbas, born in 1970, as a prominent al-Qaeda figure in Lebanon and the mastermind of a number of suicide attacks that targeted the southern suburbs of Beirut. In statements given by Islamist prisoners in Lebanon years ago, Abbas was named as the perpetrator of the assassinations of Army Major General Francois al-Hajj and MP Walid Eido. The prisoners cited leaders of Fatah al-Islam as the source of this information, but security services were not able to verify its accuracy.
According to reports, Abbas resides in South Lebanon’s Ain al-Hilweh camp, bearing in mind that security reports indicate Abbas often vanishes from the camp before reappearing with his beard shaven.
Atrash’s confessions have revealed that Abbas, who is a former member of the Islamic Jihad, is the same person known as Abu Suleiman. The latter was previously identified by the army as the owner of a warehouse in an area near Dahiyeh. Abbas, according to the same reports, gave a bomb-rigged car to Qutaiba al-Satem, the perpetrator of the first suicide bombing in Haret Hreik, after receiving it from Atrash.
The sources pointed out that Atrash confessed when he was confronted with damning evidence, including recordings of phone conversations proving his involvement, in addition to images sent by phone of the rigged cars and the perpetrator of one of the suicide attacks in Dahiyeh.
According to the sources, the army tasked a doctor to examine Atrash before handing him over to the military judiciary, to prove that he was not beaten in custody. Both the forensic doctor and Atrash have signed a report to this effect, the sources added.
Government commissioner to the military court, Judge Saq Saqr, charged Atrash and 12 others, including Lebanese, Syrian, and Palestinian nationals and other unidentified suspects, with joining an armed terrorist group with the goal of carrying out terrorist attacks, recruiting people for terrorist acts, and involvement in the bombings in Haret Hreik. Judge Saqr referred the case to the military investigative judge.
In the meantime, the army’s crackdown on terrorism continues. According to reports, more than 20 suspects have been arrested over the past two months, including Danish, Belgian, and German nationals suspected of being members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), al-Nusra Front, and the Abdullah Azzam Brigades.
In the same vein, investigations with detainee Jamal Daftardar, who was arrested by the intelligence directorate in Kamed al-Loz, continue. Daftardar had been under close surveillance after Lebanon received US tips regarding the movements of the now-deceased leader of Abdullah Azzam Brigades Majed al-Majed, as Daftardar was in charge of medical care for the latter in Lebanon.
According to reports, Daftardar is from the second generation of al-Qaeda operatives. His role focused on explosives and combat training.Al-Akhbar learned that his 16-year-old wife has since been released by the authorities, but was referred to General Security for processing, as she is a Syrian national. It appears that Daftardar knew the real identity of Majed, unlike others who were taking the Saudi terror leader to hospital or paying his medical bills.
Al Akhbar (January 31, 2014)
Early 2014, fugitive Lebanese Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir made a comeback via online social networks, tweeting messages and posting audio messages. Though these almost daily posts won’t make up for his absence since late August, for some, they may fill a void amid the absence of Sunni leaderships.
Many consider Assir’s rise to celebrity status as a sign of Sunni frustration. In just a few weeks, he captured local attention and created a media frenzy.
He first emerged as an advocate of the Syrian revolution but was so taken by fame that he proclaimed himself a spokesman of “oppressed Sunnis” all over the world, from Lebanon to Somalia to Burma. In Mecca’s holy mosques, Syria’s battle fronts, and Egypt’s squares, signs were raised saluting this rising “champion."
Many factors contributed to the myth of Assir. The sheikh played the sectarian card well and used the absence of Sunni leaders to his advantage. Today, he plans on exploiting the fact that former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri reneged on his previous promise to not join a government with Hezbollah unless the party gives up its arms or withdraws from Syria.
Assir has lambasted the Hariri family and their Future Movement ever since the Abra battle last June. In a tweet posted yesterday, he noted sarcastically: “The first outcome of the peaceful resistance against the party’s arms was the agreement to participate in an inclusive government that would cover its crimes in Lebanon and in Syria."
Assir continued: “The youth of March 14 were mistaken to hand their revolution to leaders who only raise the ceiling of their demands then surrender because they follow outside orders." Assir suggested that Hariri and Lebanese Prime-Minister designate Tammam Salam introduce a special portfolio for Sunnis: the ministry of disgrace and shame, amid the supremacy of Speaker Nabih Berri and Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, the opportunism of MP Michel Aoun, and the wit of MP Walid Jumblatt.
From his hiding place, Assir pledged to fight oppression “until the last minute of my life."
Assir had been bashing the Future Movement even before Abra, accusing the young Hariri of “living the good life and dancing around abroad." He hasn’t even spared Saida deputies Bahia al-Hariri and Fouad Siniora, though it is no secret that they both sympathized with him before and after the battle.
In a phone interview with Al-Akhbar, Sheikh Maher Hammoud, imam of al-Quds Mosque suggested that the fugitive sheikh should add the word “stupid” to his tweets. According to Hammoud, Assir would be utterly stupid to try to present himself as a leader for Sunnis or any other group of people, calling upon him to draw lessons from his past experience and “repent."
Hammoud explained that the leadership of Hariri family is now shaken “because they are puzzled between moderation and extremism. They believe that by not responding to Assir’s insults, they would be able to keep about 20 percent of the votes in the coming elections."
He also pointed out that late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s leadership “did not fill a void and was not integral. It was temporary and interest-based. It came at a time of frustration and political vacuum. Meanwhile, traditional Sunni leaderships in Lebanon have always had Arab extensions, precisely with late leaders Gamal Abdel Nasser and Yasser Arafat."
“A real Sunni leadership is the one based on an integral and sound understanding of Islam, one that bears the great causes of the nation. It champions Palestine and confronts US hegemony over the region," he said.
In a previous tweet, Assir asserted he was “among the last people who withdrew from the neighborhood of Bilal bin Rabah Mosque in Abra," adding, “I went out with my face revealed and holding my arms. If it was not for the women and children, I wouldn’t have withdrawn."
Reenacting his role as a preacher and a spiritual guide, he advised “Sunni scholars and politicians to speak the truth about Hezbollah’s crimes against us, committed directly by the party or through its tools in the Lebanese army."
Al Akhbar (January 31, 2014)
The most important result of Geneva II is its failure. Now, it is time to prepare better for the second round of negotiations, which might fail, too. The failure will likely continue until Russia and the United States agree on what the political solution will look like. Until the solution is ripe and ready, it is alright to administer some over-the-counter pain medicine and pretend that the cancer is being cured.
The failure of the first round of Geneva II allows the Russians to say the opposition is the problem. Moscow was not satisfied with the Syrian National Coalition delegation that negotiated in Geneva. Perhaps it was happy deep down that the delegation was weak and did not represent the opposition. Now, it can push to expand the representation of the opposition, end the coalition, and include most of the leftist, liberal, and secular opposition.
The failure of Geneva II does not bother Washington. The United States is looking to get rid of the specter of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It is natural, then, to hold him responsible for the failure of the current round. The Barack Obama administration realizes that Assad is going to run in the presidential elections next summer. They think that if he runs, he will win. The United States is under Russian, Iranian, and Chinese pressure to leave the Syrian people to decide their future. There is an international consensus that Assad is guaranteed to win, even if the elections take place under international supervision.
The Americans cannot even imagine this possibility, but they can not overthrow Assad or kill him. If they do, the chemical weapons deal would stop and the open door with Iran would close. There would be a major problem with Russia and China who have not gotten over the international fraud involved in overthrowing the Libyan regime and killing Moammar Gadhafi. Most dangerous is that no one knows how the Syrian army and its allies would react.
It was necessary to pull the rug from under the feet of the Syrian government’s delegation in Geneva II. The speeches of the US, Saudi, Turkish, Qatari, and French foreign ministers in Montreux all held Assad responsible for the war and terrorism in the country. The former US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, continued the campaign with his statements about war crimes. The US Congress resumed non-lethal military aid to the moderate Syrian opposition. The United States and France accused the regime of obstructing the delivery of chemical weapons, and Washington proclaimed, again, that the war option against Syria is not off the table.
The message is clear: Assad is not allowed to retake the reins. At this point, almost everything is in his favor. A fractured political opposition, fighting among opposition fighters, the reconciliation process moving forward at a faster pace, the presence and vitality of the official delegation in Geneva II whose members dominated foreign media coverage, the high morale of the army on the ground, and the shift in the Syrian public mood, whereby many want a return of the state. Add to the mix the consistency of the Iranian and Russian positions in support of their Syrian ally. Sources from both sides confirm that Assad himself, and not just the regime, is still a red line.
What can Washington and its allies do?
There are three options. Either the US accepts Assad’s survival, candidacy, and victory based on a tacit agreement with Russia. (It is possible despite the American noise that will accompany it). Or it will try again to tip the military balance by giving the opposition lethal weapons. (An unlikely possibility because of concerns over al-Qaeda, al-Nusra Front, and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). Or it will put forward an acceptable alternative to Assad. (This option is being highly promoted at this point).
A senior US official says the alternative is ready. He is reticent about the details, but he points to two options. Either it will be someone who is acceptable to the army and the main figures of the regime, which means there will be no problem with the Russians and Iranians, or the presidency in the next phase will be a kind of transitional body based on Geneva II.
Before that, the Swiss city would have hosted a number of meetings to reach an international consensus on the shape of the transitional body, its powers and its role. The same official confirms, without batting an eyelid, that the alternative has been found, and he is from the Alawi sect. He confirms, too, that contacts have been made with people inside Syria for that purpose, and that the matter is now being discussed with the Russians. You can hear similar accounts from coalition leaders who were in Geneva.
Is it serious or is it just hype? Figures within the Syrian regime and a number of their allies believe that the United States has left no stone unturned to find an alternative to Assad. They add, however, that the United States was unable to achieve this goal, even when the regime was weak. So, how will it be able to do so now, when the state has regained many of the elements of its power? It is just hype, they insist.
As such, it appears that the failure of the current round of Geneva II is useful for Washington. The United States stresses that the coalition delegation made a major concession by sitting at the negotiating table. They also agreed to discuss side issues, abandoning the precondition for negotiations, i.e., Assad stepping down. But according to Washington, the official delegation demonstrated an unwillingness to accept anything that has to do with redrawing Syria’s political future. The United States confirms that, with its allies, they tried their best to encourage the coalition delegation to come to Geneva but that it might be harder in the future.
The Russians and their allies respond that the regime, too, made a major concession when it sat with parties it describes as terrorists. That is why Moscow argues that the reason this round of negotiations did not go anywhere is because the coalition is unable to control the opposition forces on the ground and does not represent the opposition.
It is necessary, then, to have future negotiations attended by a larger cross section of the opposition and to have a more effective regional presence. The Russians talk about the need to include Iran in future negotiations that will likely take place in a few months.
It is said that Tehran, through the warm reception it gave the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is trying to pull the rug from under the feet of Saudi Arabia. The Iranian and Turkish sides are looking for a Syrian opposition that is not subject to Saudi influence. Turkey wants a price for that, however. It keeps on saying that Assad is the problem, hoping to soften Iranian opposition to the idea of abandoning him. Nevertheless, the facts on the ground indicate that the Turkish wind is blowing against the al-Qaeda-affiliated groups. This is the only thing that will weaken the fighters and make it possible to find future common ground regarding Aleppo and its countryside.
All this reveals that not all the elements of the political solution are available. But it also suggests that efforts are accelerating behind the scenes, even though the most likely possibility is that the war in Syria will go on for quite some time. However, concern over terrorism means that the United States and its allies do not have the luxury of managing the Syrian crisis forever. It is necessary, therefore, to keep the two Syrian sides within a framework of successive negotiations, even if the results are modest or even non-existent in the early stages.
Associated press (American News Agency, January 28, 2014)
Syrian Al Qaeda-linked groups want to attack the United States and are training a growing cadre of fighters from Europe, the Mideast and even the United States, United States intelligence chief James Clapper warned. Director of National Intelligence Clapper told the Senate Intelligence Committee that groups such as the Al Nusra Front in Syria have inaugurated training camps “to train people to go back to their countries,”the Associated Press quoted him as saying.
He described this as “one of the newest threats emerging in the past year to U.S. security.” He added: “Al Nusra Front, to name one .... does have aspirations for attacks on the homeland.”
However, Clapper did not elaborate or offer any evidence of al-Nusra’s desire to attack the U.S. He said the civil war in Syria has become a “huge magnet” for these groups while sub-Saharan Africa has become a “hothouse” for extremists even as Al Qaeda’s core leadership has been steadily weakened in Pakistan.
America’s intelligence agencies estimated that there were about 26,000 fighters deemed to be “extremists” operating in Syria out of a total opposition force of 75,000 to 110,000 from some 50 countries, Clapper said.
He said more established groups, like Yemen’s Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, are still more capable of carrying out attacks against the U.S., but described steep growth in numbers of fighters in Syria.
He also offered a warning on advances in Syria’s biological weapons program.
Although Syria has agreed to eliminate its large arsenal of chemical weapons, the regime may now have the ability to produce biological weapons on a limited scale, he said.
“We judge that some elements of Syria’s biological warfare program might have advanced beyond the research and development stage and might be capable of limited agent production, based on the duration of its longstanding program,” the Associated Press quoted Clapper as saying in written testimony.
Clapper offered no further details, but it was the first time an official has publicly stated that spy agencies believed Syria had made strides in its biological program.
Neither President Bashar Al Assad’s regime nor the rebel groups appear able to achieve a decisive victory on the battlefield in the next six months, said Clapper, adding that the war would further foment Sunni-Shiite sectarian tensions across the region.
Meanwhile, another U.S. official warned of extremist rebels getting access to technologies that could be used against Washington. “Not only are fighters being drawn to Syria, but so are technologies and techniques that pose particular problems to our defenses,” the Associated Press quoted committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein as saying.
She warned Syria could become “a launching point or way station for terrorists seeking to attack the United States or other nations,” in the annual hearing Wednesday to hear the U.S. intelligence committee’s assessment of worldwide threats.
U.S. intelligence analysts have told the Associated Press that Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al Zawahri and his lieutenants are too preoccupied by the constant threat of U.S. drone strikes to plot a major attack against the U.S. similar to Sept. 11.
This has pushed Zawahri to empower various “nodes” of his organization to choose their own, often local targets, though he encourages them to focus on the “far enemy” of the U.S. when they can.
U.S. intelligence officials told the Associated Press that Zawahri so far has not called on the Syrian branches to attack U.S. targets, allowing them to focus on the war against Assad.
Reuters (British News Agency, January 31, 2014)
Faced with recent setbacks in Iraq and Syria, al Qaeda is slowly but firmly gaining influence in Lebanon, helped by the country's increasing sectarian violence and the turmoil caused by Syria's civil war, sources close to the group say.
Lebanon, a small Mediterranean state with a fragile sectarian power sharing system, has seen the worst of the Syria's war spillover with car bombs in Beirut and Tripoli, gunfights in city streets and rocket fire in the Bekaa Valley.
The violence is exacerbated by Lebanon's own sectarian divisions and entrenching them. Shi'ite Hezbollah supports President Bashar al-Assad while his rebel opponents are backed by Sunni Muslims including Islamists and al Qaeda fighters.
In Syria, the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) holds territory in the north and east but has been on the defensive in recent weeks after coming under attack from rival rebel groups that resent its harsh rule.
The sources say it is now seeking to expand in Lebanon, particularly the northern city of Tripoli, plagued by violence and lawlessness since the start of Syria's uprising nearly three years ago.
The accounts from the sources, including fighters who support and oppose al Qaeda inSyria, appeared to be supported at the weekend when a statement in the name of Abu Sayyaf al-Ansary - described as al Qaeda's commander in Lebanon - said the group had put down roots in Lebanon.
In an audio statement Ansary declared allegiance to the head of ISIL. Speaking, he said, from Tripoli, he announced Lebanon would be a gateway for al Qaeda to strike at Israel.
Several Syrian rebel sources said the group was in the final stages of establishing itself in Lebanon's north - a region seen as fertile ground for the group where many people have adopted a stricter interpretation of Sunni Islam in the past few years.
Against that backdrop, a local commander in Syria who is close to al Qaeda commanders there said Ansary had been given the conditional blessing of ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to announce al Qaeda's presence in Lebanon.
"There will be statement in the next few days and the world will know then what will happen in Lebanon, and with God's will it will warm the heart of the faithful," he said.
While the group is expected to focus on Tripoli as a base, local commanders may be present in the northern province of Akkar, in the Bekaa Valley and the southern city of Sidon, where supporters of Sunni Islamist Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir clashed with the army last year.
Residents say al Qaeda is already calling the shots in some Tripoli neighborhoods and areas of the northern province of Akkar and the Bekaa Valley. Black and white flags associated with its uncompromising Islamist agenda openly fly from the streets and balconies of some Tripoli districts.
Baghdadi, an Iraqi who leads thousands of fighters from across the world but mainly from Iraq, Egypt and Libya, initially sent his men to fight alongside Syrian rebels, most of them Islamists.
But many Syrian fighters grew to resent his dominance, especially after his fighters killed and tortured hundreds of Syrians including other Islamist fighters.
"His dream is to create a state, he cannot see anything else but that and will crush anybody who stands in his way," said a Syrian commander who fights against al Qaeda.
The sources were divided over how powerful the group is at this stage in Lebanon. Some said it had already established its base and would launch more organized attacks in the country, while others said it was still in final preparatory stages.
"Our understanding is that they are around 80 percent established but not fully established. They are still not well organized or the cells connected to each other," said another Syrian commander via Skype. "They are in the process of re-grouping, that is what we know."
Sources in Tripoli said that a debate took place for weeks among the jihadis on whether to go public. They were told by higher command to wait for approval from Baghdadi.
Saturday's audio statement, posted on YouTube in Abu Sayyaf al-Ansary's name, suggests that approval has been granted.
"After the flag of Islam was raised from Iraq to the Levant ... we have decided to announce our allegiance to them," he said. "We swear allegiance to Emir Abu Bakr al-Husseini al-Baghdadi, from Tripoli, so that we will be a door for him, God willing, from Lebanon to the holy site (Jerusalem)."
"So we offered the idea of regenerating their cells in Lebanon so that we continue the path of jihad which has scared America in its den."
"The north (of Lebanon) is a fertile ground for this for many reasons. People are extremists - but because of ignorance," said a third Syrian commander who lives in Turkey. He predicted an escalation in violence in Lebanon but said all-out conflict remained unlikely for now.
"More car bombs and explosions will happen here and there. As for an all out war in Lebanon, I think it's not possible in the near term," he said.