Monday March 3, 2014, no173
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
Syria, Ukraine and the new world
By Ghaleb Kandil
The events in Ukraine is the result of a US-European decision to give a blow to the heart of Russia 's sphere of strategic influence. Ukraine is of great importance both economically and militarily for Russia. Situated between Asia and Eastern Europe, it is a rare access to hot water, with the Black Sea Fleet based in Crimea. It is through Ukraine, too, that pass pipelines supplying Europe with Russian gas.
It goes without saying that the European-American coup in Ukraine is totally unconstitutional and has nothing democratic or peaceful. It constitutes a flagrant violation of the agreement signed under the auspices of European foreign ministers between President Viktor Ianoukovitch and opposition. The role of U.S. intelligence and European evident in the events that led to the ouster of Ianoukovitch, who took refuge in Russia.
This western escalation against Russia aims to impose to Moscow the rules of the new international partnership led by the United States, according to the concept of Richard Haas, president of the American Institute for Foreign Relations.
These developments put Russia to the challenge of defending its national security and its highest interests, as well as its conception of international partnership with the United States.
We must recognize that Russia has demonstrated carelessness on the eve of the Geneva II Conference on Syria, which has encouraged Washington and the West to test the possibility of forcing the arm of the Russian command and devote precedents and impose fait accompli.
By accepting that Iran was not invited to the Geneva Conference II, and that the Secretary General of the UN, Ban Ki-moon continues to receive orders from the United States, Russia gave signals of submission to the concept of partnership led by the Americans, to the detriment of the logic of balance and equal responsibilities. This naturally led Americans and Westerners to be arrogant and to multiply provocative acts, which occurred at the Munich conference on Ukraine and the anti-missile shield.
The Syrian state succeeded through its firmness in the management of the confrontation, to defeat aggression and to maintain its alliance with Russia. Soundness, rationality and the spirit of resistance with which the Syrian government delegation negotiated in Geneva helped derail the U.S. plan to exploit the gaps appeared due to the relative weakness of Russia. Today, after what happened in Ukraine, any evaluation from Russia should lead to greater firmness in the fight against terrorism and isolation of all states involved in supporting terrorism. It should enable the Security Council to act against sponsors of terrorism, in accordance with the vision defended by Syria and Iran. A terrorism supported, financed, armed and trained by the satellite states of the United States, including Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabi.
Both Syria and Iran have made serious efforts to preserve and strengthen their alliance with Russia, while taking care to preserve Moscow calculations, even when they were not fully convinced of the Russian analysis.
Whatever the nature of the response of Russia in Ukraine, it will be in harmony with firmer Russian policy in the Syrian file. Meanwhile, the Syrian state and its allies make political and military success and the Syrian leadership has a growing popular support. The United States is preparing to cover an Israeli plan to establish a "security buffer zone" in Syria, under the control of an Syrian militia auxiliary to Israel.
A few months separate us from the moment of truth in Afghanistan, where the Obama administration will be forced to open channels of negotiations with Iran and Russia. These months will witness the emergence of new equations to establish a new international partnership, which must begin with a change in the structure of balance of power in the UN, to release the organization of American hegemony.
The victory of Syria, looming on the horizon, will be crowned by the reelection of President Bashar al- Assad, as recognized by U.S. intelligence reports submitted to the U.S. Congress.
We will then witness the birth of the new world.
Michel Suleiman, President of the Republic
«Keeping and preserving our land is a necessary obligation to ensure the lives of all citizens according to the internationally-recognized constitution. Legal institutions should be the sole political and military decision makers. The Baabda Agreement has become a fixed concept and is of the same level as the National Pact. It is superior to all ministerial statements that depend on cabinets. I consider that the Baabda Declaration is more important politically than the ministerial statement, which changes with every new cabinet. The declaration has become an international document after it was unanimously approved by the national dialogue committee. It is not helpful to later dismiss this declaration.»
Suleiman Frangieh, Lebanese MP, Marada leader Movement
«We want to preserve our dignity and our right to liberate our land. This is why we support the resistance [Hezbollah] until the liberation of the land and the reclaiming of all our rights. The country is going through difficult times, but it will overcome them the same way it overcame other difficulties.»
Sheikh Naïm Kassem, Hezbollah Deputy Secretary General
«The resistance is one of the main pillars of the ministerial statement. The ministerial statement would not be consistent if it did not acknowledge the resistance. The most honest and realistic ministerial statement is the one that states the right to resistance against Israel. The ministerial statement should be the result of consensus, and no party can impose its point of view on others.»
Sejaan Azzi, Labor Minister
«The ministerial statement committee announced its failure since each party adhered to their stances. March 8 insists on adding the resistance to the ministerial statement, and March 14 adheres to the Baabda Agreement and the authority of the state.»
Samir Geagea, Lebanese Forces leader
«Announcement of the cabinet’s policy belongs in the ministerial statement and what we have seen so far does not bode well. Work is being done so that all sides preserve their positions, while our problem is with one of the sides. Fundamentalist groups did not consider Hezbollah an enemy until it took part in the fighting in Syria alongside the Syrian regime. The last fundamentalist group in Lebanon was Fatah al-Islam in 2007 and Hezbollah was the only team to refuse military action against it.»
Hezbollah blasted President Michel Suleiman for his recent comments calling for his implicit criticism of Hezbollah’s insistence on the ministerial statement enshrining the role of resistance in the country. "With all our due respect to the presidency and what it represents, the latest speech delivered [Friday] makes us believe that the Baabda Palace has recently been in need of special care, since its occupier cannot differentiate anymore between gold and wood," the statement said. The party's response came a day after Suleiman called during a speech at a conference held at the USEK University for "not clinging to wooden formulas that hinder the drafting of the ministerial statement.” In a swift reaction to Hezbollah's statement, Suleiman wrote on the social networking site Twitter that the presidency needs "recognition of the decisions that had been unanimously taken, namely the Baabda Declaration."
Citing security sources, An Nahar daily reported that two young men were posted in Tuesday morning on the roof of a building in the area of Unesco (Beirut) overlooking the headquarters of the Russian Embassy, and using binoculars and cameras. A lady who has noticed their presence warned security services. But when a patrol arrived on the scene, the two men had already left for an unknown destination.
As Safir (Lebanese daily, Arab nationalist)
(February 28, 2014)
Speaker Nabih Berri said he was determined that the ministerial statement acknowledge the right of the Lebanese people to resist against Israel. “I will not accept to sacrifice or compromise a letter in the word ‘resistance’,” Berri told As-Safir.
He also commented on President Michel Suleiman’s call for acknowledgement of the Baabda Agreement in the ministerial statement.
“Quote me as saying that I call for adding the Baabda Agreement as well as the [formula of the] unity of [Lebanon’s] ‘people, army, and Resistance’; otherwise, let there be compromise [on] both [items],” he said.
Berri also said that if more time was wasted on the ministerial statement, he would call a parliament session to elect a new president.
“I can call, at this moment, a plenary session to elect a president if more time is wasted [in discussing] the self-evident issues in the ministerial statement…you will see then how the wind changes,” he said.
The speaker also said that Maronite party leaders “who call for the election of a strong president, should agree amongst each other first, so that appropriate action can be taken.”
As Safir (February 28, 2014)
According to a well-infirmed source, a member from the Abdullah Azzam Brigades revealed under interrogation that the Al-Qaeda-linked group was planning to assassinate Speaker Nabih Berri.
The arrestee, Mahmoud Abu Alfa, told the Internal Security Forces’ Information Branch that members of the Brigades were monitoring the entrances to Beirut’s Ain al-Tineh, and a number of other areas that Berri frequented.
Abu Alfa also revealed that the group planned to kill Berri with an explosives-laden car driven by a suicide bomber, even if the operation required two car bombs and two suicide bombers at the same time.
One of the suicide bombers planned to drive his car from the southern entrance and the other from the northern entrance, nearer to the Ain al-Tineh-Verdun area.
The report added that the Abdullah Azzam Brigades were close to determining the zero hour of the operation.
The source stated that Information Branch Chief Brigadier General Imad Othman told one of Berri’s aides of all the details of the operation and advised that Berri travel less frequently.
The Abdullah Azzam Brigades and other terror groups had three fixed targets: the Iranian Embassy, the Iranian Chancellery, and Al-Manar television in Bir Hassan.
An Nahar (Lebanese daily, close to March-14 Coalition)
(March 1, 2014)
Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil suggested that there be no ministerial statement for the cabinet, as the committee tasked to draft it failed to reach consensus regarding adding clauses related to the Baabda Agreement and the resistance. “Bassil proposed that there be no ministerial statement and that the cabinet’s only description be that it is a cabinet of national interest, which would spare no effort to serve the country,” sources said.
Bassil’s suggestion was backed by Labor Minister Sejaan Azzi, who thought it was “a good idea.”
Azzi also suggested that the ministerial statement be limited to one page that would include the general national principles independently from both the March 8 and the March 14 coalitions.
However, both ideas were refused by State Minister Mohammad Fnesih and Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil, who insisted the ministerial statement acknowledged the resistance.
Telecommunications Minister Boutros Harb suggested that the ministerial statement not tackle controversial issues, which would be left for discussion later in the cabinet.
However, Prime Minister Tammam Salam did not approve of Harb’s proposal, saying that it detracted from the committee’s competence, and called on the committee to carry on with its task.
“I was patient for ten months until the cabinet was formed. You should be patient too, but not stall for a long time,” the premier told the ministers.
Salam ended the debate and the ministers agreed to meet again on Monday to resume the discussion on the ministerial statement.
Al Akhbar (Lebanese Daily close to the Lebanese Resistance)
Radwan Mortada (March 1, 2014)
Military Judge Riad Abu Ghida recommended on Friday the death penalty for Salafist cleric Ahmad al-Assir, former singer Fadel Shaker, and 55 others over the Abra clashes in southern Lebanon.
The indictment includes statements by suspects arrested in connection to the events as well as details about the Abra clashes that shed light on the roles al-Assir and Shaker played.
On June 23, 2013, a Lebanese army checkpoint stopped two of al-Assir’s supporters. After an altercation with the officers, they were both taken to Brigade 14 command headquarters in Salhieh. News of the arrest angered al-Assir who ordered an armed group led by Ahmad al-Hariri and Sheikh Youssef Hneineh to remove the checkpoint.
Starting with this incident, the indictment recounts the Abra events based on statements by people arrested in connection to the case. According to the report, after the group reached the checkpoint, Ahmad al-Hariri told the commanding officer “you have to remove the checkpoint,” so the officer asked him to “step away.” Al-Hariri didn’t comply and started yelling at the officer, at which point militants opened fire, killing two officers and hurting another. The army retaliated and later Mahmoud al-Nakouzi (a.k.a Abu Hamze) launched a missile at an army tank, destroying it and killing all soldiers on board. This in turn began the beginning of the Abra clashes between the army and al-Assir's group.
The commander's of al-Assir's group sent text messages to his supporters with the code word “TAMER”, meaning that they should immediately join the fighting. They took their positions and began sniper operations while blocking roads in Saida and in regions around Abra. The battle ended with the army entering al-Assir’s compound after 30 hours.
Similar to what happened with the orchestrators of the Nahr al-Bared events, Ahmad al-Assir, along with Fadel Shaker and their close circle, managed to escape in unclear circumstances while many of their supporters were arrested. The army lost 20 soldiers and about 150 others were injured in the clashes. Statements by the detainees revealed that al-Assir set up an armed organization, recruited and trained its supporters, and then divided them into geographical regions surrounding the Bilal Ben Rabah mosque where al-Assir regularly preached. Al-Assir also deployed armed men in apartments overlooking Saida’s main roads so he would be able to close the streets in case he came under attack.
Almost all detainees said that they joined al-Assir because they sympathized with his attitude and positions. Regardless of their monthly salaries, ranging between 330$ and 1300$, collaborators of al-Assir’s group aimed “to fight Israel and ward off attacks by the Resistance Brigades.” Most of his sympathizers underwent military training under the supervision of his brother Amjad and his friend, Abdel Rahman Shamandar.
Defendants also revealed that in the last few months, al-Assir urged his supporters to fight the Lebanese army and called upon Sunnis to desert and establish a Free Lebanese Army, similar to the FSA fighting the regime in Syria. Their statements suggested that the radical cleric started gathering arms and ammunition near the mosque about a year ago. Some in his close circle reported that Fadi al-Sousi (a.k.a Nouh) and Mohammed al-Beiruti were the military leaders and joined others in training and deploying members of the groups.
The indictment also refers to the battles that took place according to the detainees’ statements. Interestingly, there were almost no signs of al-Assir and Shaker in the battles.
Al-Assir incited his men to attack the checkpoint but his name didn’t come up until later in defendant Ahmad Hashem’s statement who said al-Assir requested him to bring a shaver so he can shave his beard and asked him to take his two wives and some other women to the town of Hilaliyeh near Saida.
According to Hashem, he heard al-Assir saying that he will “escape to Ain al-Hilweh or to Tripoli.” Some defendants also said they saw al-Assir and Shaker at the shelter with women and injured fighters. A detainee said that Shaker ran off with an armed group through a back road near a garage, the same road that Hashem used to evacuate al-Assir’s wives and later reported to him that it had no checkpoints. Al-Assir soon followed, boarding a stolen Mercedes according to some detainees. Defendants said that they surrendered once they found out that al-Assir and his companions had fled. Meanwhile, most of them didn’t know that they were fighting the army but thought they were fighting the Resistance Brigades.
The indictment suggested that Sheikh Mohsen Shaaban, a defendant who was later released, said that he introduced al-Assir to a number of Free Syrian Army commanders, explaining that he organized al-Assir’s visit to Joussi and took him in his own car. According to Shaaban, it was agreed in the meeting to sell arms to Al-Assir in exchange for sending fighters to Syria. In his initial statement, Shaaban confessed to transferring arms to al-Assir’s compound and transferring fighters to join the rebels in Syria. However, he later retracted his statement and told the judge that it was beaten out of him.
Shaaban said that Amjad al-Assir, Sheikh al-Assir’s brother called him and asked him to bring a car with a Dar al-Fatwa license plate as well as Islamic gowns for men and women so that al-Assir and his companions can use to escape but he couldn’t pull it off.
The indictment refers to al-Assir’s meeting with Khaled Amer, an explosives expert who used to fight within al-Farouk brigade in Syria. Al-Assir asked for Amer’s assistance in making bombs, in order to move the battle into Lebanon as a retaliation for Hezbollah’s fighting in Syria. He later joined al-Assir’s group and participated in the Abra clashes.
Judge Abu Ghida said in the indictment that a cache of weapons, explosives and mortar shells was seized at al-Assir headquarters, as well as electronics, cars and CCTV cameras that showed the defendants shooting at the army. Judge Abu Ghida divided the 74 defendants into 5 groups depending on the nature of their acts. The first group includes defendants who shot at the army and killed soldiers; this includes al-Assir and Shaker. According to article 549 of the Lebanese penal code, they may face the death penalty. Meanwhile, the second group involves people who haven’t confessed to opening fire at the army but belonged to armed groups, and were in possession of weapons and ready to fight during the clashes.
The third, fourth and fifth groups have defendants whose charges range between belonging to armed groups and those whose roles were restricted to management and logistics, in addition to defendants who weren’t proven to have participated in the battles.
The charges include "having formed an armed group aiming to conduct terrorist acts, attacking army posts and killing officers and soldiers on purpose, attacking military forces while on the job, seizing arms, explosives without license, making speeches against the military institution and its solidarity as well as incitation and causing sectarian hatred and violating civil peace.”
Al Akhbar (March 1, 2014)
There is a huge gap between the dreams of the opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC) and the plans of the countries that back it – especially the United States – regarding creating a buffer zone in the south of Syria. The SNC, along with its Gulf allies, wants to establish a platform for a subsequent military assault on Damascus that would completely reverse the tide of the current battles. However, the Americans want to use it to put pressure on the regime and force it to make concessions in any future round of the Geneva talks, believing that a military victory for either side is impossible.
Following recent meetings held in Jordan, SNC leaders returned to their bases in Europe and Istanbul with the impression that heating up the southern front would be a prelude for a new chapter in the military showdown with Damascus. This phase, the SNC believes, would go as far as changing the balance of power, which is currently tipped in favor of the regime, or at the very least, alter it in the opposition’s favor.
Al-Akhbar received information from sources in the SNC directly involved in the meetings in Jordan held between SNC leaders, figures in the armed Syrian opposition, and Jordanian and U.S. officials, to discuss plans for a buffer zone.
The SNC’s view is that for this zone to be effective, it must include the so-called southern-border triangle, that is, the borders with the occupied Golan, Lebanon, and Jordan. The main goal of the zone, according to the sources, would be to create an area that is completely outside the control of regime forces, requiring the following measures:
First: Purging the areas currently controlled by the opposition from regime-controlled pockets, before beginning an operation to expand opposition-controlled territory until the buffer zone in question is fully formed. It is in this context that the battles have been raging for the past few days in a number of villages between Quneitra and Daraa, with the militant groups trying to seize control of these territories.
Second: After cleansing opposition-controlled areas, work begins on pushing back regime forces by at least 40 km from the border with Jordan and Occupied Palestine. This range would effectively incapacitate Syrian artillery, and effectively extending the southern buffer zone to the edges of the Damascus governorate and the capital’s southern countryside.
According to sources, militant groups would also benefit from the already existing buffer zone imposed through Security Council resolutions 338 in 1974, at a length of ten kilometers from the border with the occupied territories. As per leaked reports, there was no equivocation about the intention of the armed opposition to take advantage of the existing buffer zone with the occupied Golan Heights, which is nearly free from government forces, to tighten their control of the area.
According to SNC sources as well, logistical preparations for the opposition military formations are nearly complete. In addition, they say, special training carried out by Jordanian intelligence with direct help from U.S. Special Forces is now in its final stages, while the majority of trained fighters are ready to engage in battle and awaiting a green light.
Yet this green light is hindered by a complicated situation that the SNC is trying to circumvent by betting on drastic changes in the U.S. policy on Syria. Furthermore, SNC sources say that armed groups are currently unable to fight regime forces and Hezbollah unless they are provided with advanced weapons, including anti-tank and anti-aircraft equipment.
Sources stated that, “Despite obtaining a limited number of anti-tank missiles, the main problem that remains is the Syrian air force, which can reach even the border with Jordan and the edges of the buffer zone in the Golan without any deterrent.” The sources thus link the success of the SNC’s plan to disrupting the ability of the Syrian air force to provide air cover for the zone in question, by imposing a no-fly zone or by supplying the militants with anti-aircraft missiles.
Meanwhile, the SNC is wagering on a change in the U.S. position, “which has so far refused to supply the Syrian opposition with strategic anti-aircraft weapons.” In the opinion of some SNC leaders, the U.S. position will inevitably change. Some in the SNC go as far as betting on a Russian intervention in Ukraine, “which would leave the West, and the Americans in particular, with no excuse to not intervene militarily in Syria in response.”
Ultimately, however, the most intractable obstacle to establishing a buffer zone for the American and Jordanian sides are the radical Islamist groups in the area, including al-Nusra Front, which has a heavy presence in the regions in question.
The Jordanians are concerned of the fallout of the radical Islamist presence on the kingdom, which is why Amman sees any buffer zone as a solution to the crisis of the Syrian refugees on its territory, rather than a military staging ground.
The American concern, in the meantime, has to do with Israel and its nervousness over the presence of unpredictable groups along its borders. Particularly when the Southern Front, a recently established alliance comprised of 49 different armed factions, and which is being relied upon in no small measure for establishing the buffer zone, includes a large number of extremist Islamist groups.
Al Akhbar (February 28, 2014)
The threat of terrorist networks in Lebanon is being uncovered almost daily. Mahmoud Abu Alfeh’s arrest by the Information Branch on the morning of the Bir Hassan twin blasts has uncovered more plots to carry out car bombings and suicide attacks in Lebanon, much like Naim Abbas’s confession to the army intelligence earlier this month.
Abu Alfeh, who admitted to being part of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, told investigators just before the Bir Hassan twin attacks, that Sirajdddin Zureikat, a brigades leader, instructed him to monitor security measures near the Iranian Cultural Center and neighboring al-Manar TV building.
Investigators were shocked when the twin explosions hit the region shortly after Abu Alfeh’s confessions.
Though it was difficult to extract information from him, Abu Alfeh spoke about his links to Zureikat and the tasks assigned to other men currently held in custody, including his cousin Hassan A. Abu Alfeh revealed that Zureikat instructed him to plan suicide attacks targeting Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri’s home in Ain al-Tineh. He told the Information Branch that he monitored the area a few times and examined all entrances leading to Berri’s home, as well as its iron gates and their capacity to resist explosions based on their size. He forwarded the information to Zureikat who had Berri as a target.
Though Abu Alfeh reported that it was almost impossible to reach Berri due to heavy security measures, the men didn’t give up and discussed waging attacks using many suicide bombers. Mahmoud and Hassan, both arrested in Tariq al-Jdideh, said that Zureikat also assigned them to monitor the residence of former minister Wiaam Wahab, living in close proximity to the Iranian Cultural Center and al-Manar TV.
Security sources said that the Tariq al-Jdideh group had not executed any security work yet, but it was monitoring areas in preparation for future suicide bombings. These sources said that information revealed by Abu Alfeh crossed with previous information about Berri’s name being added to a hit list that Lebanese security forces and European intelligence agencies were aware of. Some security reports even mentioned the names of the members of the group suspected of planning to assassinate him.
It turned out that this group is known to security forces for its links with al-Qaeda and affiliated organizations and it is active in Ain al-Helweh Palestinian refugee camp.
One report warned that this group might attempt to assassinate Berri using a sniper gun. Meanwhile, the Information Branch reported Abu Alfeh confessions to both Berri and Wahab. In addition, security sources said that people close to Berri had received in recent months warnings that groups with links to al-Qaeda put some members of his close circle on their hit list.
Al Akhbar (February 28, 2014)
Israel, with its strike on a Hezbollah position on the Lebanese border with Syria on Monday, was trying to test the possibility of altering the rules of engagement. Hezbollah’s statement in response carried a stern and sharp warning. So is it in Israel’s interests to provide a pretext for a war whose outcome it cannot predict?
Since August 15, 2006, the day the war on Lebanon that year came to a halt, the Resistance began restoring, developing, and expanding its military capabilities in both quality and quantity. The Resistance’s rearming was so successful that Israel was eventually forced to admit that Hezbollah possessed more than 100,000 rockets that can hit any target in Israel. This is part of a bigger missile arsenal in the region directed at the Jewish State, to the tune of 170,000 rockets, as Israel estimates.
From day one, Tel Aviv has declared that it would not allow Hezbollah to rebuild its capabilities and restore them to their pre-war levels – meaning that it was not going to allow for its rocket arsenal of approximately 12,000 rockets be replenished. This was a red line that Israel repeatedly stated it would not allow to be crossed. Nevertheless, Hezbollah’s capabilities grew dramatically, along with its ability to hit targets with accuracy,precision, and destructive force.
Despite this, Israel did not launch any military attacks on Syria or Hezbollah, even though Israel engaged in brinkmanship in this regard, through the U.S. administration, which put immense pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to compel him to stop supplying and letting weapons into Lebanon to arm Hezbollah. However, the resilience Assad has shown, and the Resistance’s serious willingness to respond to any Israeli attempt to thwart its bid to shore up its capabilities, has forced Israel to show some restraint.
As the years passed, the Resistance’s capabilities grew bigger and bigger. In the meantime, Tel Aviv continued to count Hezbollah’s rockets, issuing periodical reports on their number, type, accuracy, range, and payload. There was much clamoring in the media, political circles, and intelligence community in Israel, but was met with deaf ears in Haret Hreik and Damascus.
With the start of the crisis in Syria, the Israelis wagered on achieving more than Tel Aviv had ever hoped for before, that is not only to force Assad to stop supplying weapons to Hezbollah, but also topple Assad’s regime altogether and produce a new anti-Resistance regime in Syria.
This Israeli wager reached a peak when, on January 2, 2012, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, backed by military intelligence assessments, predicted that the Syrian regime would collapse “within weeks.” This is while the assessment of the rare pessimists in the Israeli intelligence community was that the regime would last no more than a few months. But this wager fell through after the regime was able to halt its downward spiral. This meant that Tel Aviv had to reexamine its options.
Israel estimated that the attack on the Syrian state has greatly exhausted it, and that the Syrian army, despite its steadfastness and the fact it that went on the offensive against its opponents, is also exhausted and preoccupied with the fight against the various factions of the armed opposition throughout Syrian territory. In light of this assessment, Tel Aviv decided to seek to prevent the passage of specific types of weapons to Hezbollah by means of direct military strikes. Israel believes what it feared before is now unlikely in light of the new reality on the ground.
The series of Israeli strikes inside Syrian territory began on January 31, 2013. Limited strikes continued after that, in a way that did not put Israel’s enemies into a corner and force them to respond, but that at the same time, gave Israel the chance to eliminate whatever targets it can.
This remained confined to Syrian territory, bearing in mind that Israel’s interest was clearly to target positions in Lebanon, the location of the actual threat. However, Israel knew in advance that there would be a violent response to that, as emphasized by Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, secretary general of Hezbollah, in February 2013. All this compelled Tel Aviv to remain vigilant, yet refrain from carrying out direct military strikes in Lebanon.
Last Monday’s raid signified that there was a new Israeli decision pushing in favor of taking action to test whether what has been done in Syria can be replicated in Lebanon – in the sense of carrying out limited and specific strikes that Israel does not confirm officially, and that Hezbollah can ignore to avoid embarrassment, as if nothing had happened.
In the first two days following the strike, there was much fanfare in the attitudes, analyses, and press coverage on the Israeli side. It was claimed that Israel struck and that Hezbollah ignored what happened and remained silent, and even that Hezbollah accepted to say that the strike had taken place in Syrian territory. However, a statement issued by Hezbollah soon brought with it a decisive response that thwarted Israel’s new strategy.
Israel has correctly determined that Hezbollah is currently fighting on two fronts, in Syria and Lebanon, and has no interest in opening a third one with Israel. However, Hezbollah at the same time cannot allow Israel to achieve what armed Syrian groups and their other opponents have failed to accomplish.
Nonetheless, the flip side of this, that Israel and others are ignoring, is that Israel also has no interest in provoking a party that has formidable military capabilities. What we are seeing now is a tug of war. There is an Israeli attempt to take advantage of the attack on the resistance axis in Syria and Lebanon – which includes direct combat, bombings, and political and media campaigns. It is an attempt to impose a new equation.
Hezbollah’s response and decision were to raise a yellow card. The ball may now be in Israel’s court, so will Israel understand what it means for Hezbollah to raise a yellow card? Will it be more prudent so as not to provoke a red card?
Al Joumhouria (Lebanese Daily close to March-14 coalition)
(March 1, 2014)
The leaders of the main Christian parties will meet with Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rai in Bkirki within the next couple of weeks to discuss the upcoming presidential election.
“Bkirki [the patriarchate] is trying to bring the meeting forward as much as possible, in order to reach a [positive] result, and to give time for more meetings before March 25, the start-date of the constitutional time-frame to elect a president,” a well-informed source in Bkirki told Al-Joumhouria .
“The patriarch will propose a certain vision to the Christian leaders, and it will be the last time he gets them to face their historical and national responsibilities,” the source added.
The source noted that Bkirki favors consensus among Christian leaders on one presidential candidate.
“If they do not agree on one name, they should at least suggest two names,” the source added.
According to the source, the patriarch sensed during his meetings with Lebanese politicians in Rome that the two major parliamentary blocs, the Future bloc and the Change and Reform bloc, were ready to provide quorum for the presidential election session.
“The stance of the Change and Reform bloc is different than in 2007 when it boycotted the presidential election,” the source added.
“Bkirki thinks that all those who welcomed its memorandum are necessarily bound to [participate] in the election of a [new] president.”
Al Raï (Kuwaiti Daily, February 28, 2014)
The Kuwaiti daily Al Rai reported on Friday that the commanders of the joint operating room between the Syrian army and Hezbollah have indicated that the vast Syrian rebel column, which fell this week in an ambush in eastern Ghouta (175 deaths), was heading towards southern Syria, specifically to Jordan. The survivors have provided this information during interrogation. The same sources added that "the ambush is one of the answers to the cowardly attacks that target civilians in Lebanon." "This type of operation is organized in passages borrowed by Al-Nosra Front in his attempts to regain control of the Ghouta," said the sources. Commanders indicated that nine ambushes of the same type have already been strained against Al-Nosra and 623 foreigners fighters and several hundred Syrians have been killed, without any battle. "This is a message to the Israeli enemy to show him what to expect if he decides to embark on a military adventure against Lebanon," said the sources.
AFP (France-Press Agency, March 1, 2014)
The US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, who has been Washington's main pointman in efforts to end the war, working with opposition leaders battling President Bashar al-Assad, stepped down Friday.
"Robert Ford is retiring from the foreign service today after nearly 30 years of distinguished service," State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told reporters.
She admitted that Ford, who over the past three years has built up extensive contacts with the opposition leaders and was instrumental in helping to bring them to the Geneva peace talks, would be a loss.
"His extraordinary leadership has guided our response to one of the most formidable foreign policy challenges in the region," Psaki said.
"From the outbreak of the crisis, Ambassador Ford has worked tirelessly in support of the Syrian people in their pursuit of freedom and dignity."
Ford left Damascus in 2011 when Washington decided to close the embassy as the uprising which began in March that year descended swiftly into a bloody civil war.
Since then he has shuttled between the United States and Turkey, spending hours huddled with opposition leaders based out of Istanbul as he sought to help them form a more cohesive and inclusive body.
Ford has also spoken passionately and angrily about the mounting atrocities in the war which will enter its fourth year next month, and in which more than 136,000 people have been killed and millions displaced.
"There's no question that his departure is a loss, not just because of his contacts, but because of his expertise, because of his knowledge," Psaki said.
She announced that for the time being as the White House mulls a replacement for Ford, Deputy Assistant Secretary Lawrence Silverman would take up the helm.
"There will be a continuity, given that there are a range of officials who will still be in place," Psaki said.
"Obviously, part of what I'm sure will be looked at is the role that the next person will play in terms of their engagement with the opposition."
The UN-led Geneva II peace talks broke down on February 15 and no new date has yet been set for them to reconvene.
But Psaki insisted that as the United States seeks to prepare for "a new Syria" Ford's "legacy will guide our efforts to support Syrians and lay the foundation for a more hopeful future."
"The president and the secretary [John Kerry] of course are both incredibly grateful for his service."