Monday March 24, 2014, no176
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
Global confrontation after Syria and Ukraine
By Ghaleb Kandil
What happened in Ukraine is a coup prepared by Western intelligence services in order to modify the new global equilibrium, which threaten the unilateral American hegemony. The objective is to test the possibilities to curb the rise of Russia -as a rival power of the United States-, an international alliance in full economic development, advocating the establishment of new rules, based on a fair and balanced partnership, including emerging powers, Russia, Iran, China, South Africa, India, Brazil and other countries.
American strategic vision, which was to use military, economic and technological superiority to prevent the emergence of a rival power, was initiated a quarter century ago. This vision has been developed in a report of the Council of the American national security, and fully analyzed and commented by the great French scientist Alain Joxe in his book The American mercenary, which evokes the arrogance of war to punish states, governments and movements hostile to American hegemony in the world.
The invasion of Iraq, in 2003, was seen by many analysts as a show of force to scare opponents, based on a flagrant violation of the UN Charter, an organization that the American strategists wanted to destroy and replace by NATO as a structure leading the world.
It should be recalled in this context that the adversaries of the United States avoided at this time, the confrontation. Only Syria, in conformity with its Arab nationalist principles, opposed the invasion of Iraq. With Iran and the Resistance, Damascus opposed three major wars fought by America against Lebanon and Gaza through the Israeli army.
The new American colonialist aggression against Syria broke on the determination of the Syrian State, his army, and large sections of the population, under the leadership of President Bashar al-Assad. This spirit of resistance has allowed Russia, Iran and the countries of the Brics, to establish a new global equations. They forced Washington to abandon its plan to attack Syria, to negotiate with Iran, and to recognize its regional role. These new equations have been consolidated thanks to the commitment of Hezbollah in fighting Takfirists mercenaries, sent to Syria from 60 countries, as recognized Saturday, King Abdullah II of Jordan. All these developments have forced the United States to return to international partnership and Security Council of the UN, locked by the Sino-Russian veto to counter U.S. plans. Facing the determination of Russia, Iran and China, the United States has failed to impose their vision of a partnership under their direction.
It is in this context that the plan of direct provocation and aggression against Russia was implemented in an attempt to tie the hands of the imperial power in his backyard. The plot provoked a Russian response to the same scale, through the annexation of Crimea, after a popular referendum. This rapid response thwarted the American plan to bend Moscow and Washington impose the logic of a global partnership under his direction.
Ukrainian crisis paves the way for a confrontation on a global scale, as part of a new Cold War against the arrogance of the United States, lurking behind a weak and divided Europe, especially that national interests Germany differ from those of many of its European partners.
After Russia had made its national interests prevail against the U.S. colonialist plan, the West continues its provocations through sanctions and continued its attempts to penetrate into the Russian sphere of influence, trying to expand the NATO to former Soviet republics.
Faced with this aggressive approach, President Vladimir Putin, supported by an overwhelming part of the Russian and Russian-speaking public, has implemented its strategic plan for the reunification of historical Russia, according to his speech before the Duma. This means that the Russian Empire is determined to confront the West until it resolves to retreat and accept the rules of the new balanced international partnership advocated by Moscow.
Historical Russia extends beyond geographical borders of the former Soviet Union and includes all states and Slavic Orthodox Europe. European experts know that Moscow also eyeing to Greece.
The success of Russia passes necessarily by its continued support for Syria and strengthening its alliance with this country, whose resistance to Western planes allowed Moscow to adopt sound and strong positions against the United States and their allies.
The choices and instruments that Russia can bring in its confrontation with the West are many. They range from the use of its economic power, demographic advantages due to the presence of millions of Russians in the former republics of the Soviet Union, training with partners Brics an economic, political and strategic front by endowing the gathering of a bank structure capable of dealing with American hegemony States. And if the nuclear balance is a guarantee to avoid direct confrontation between Russia and America, regional wars, they are fighting by proxies, are not excluded. This is what is happening in Syria for three years and can be extended to other parts of the world .
Michel Sleiman, Lebanese President
«Holding the presidential election on time would be a great accomplishment that I aspire to achieve. We need to put a defense strategy to protect Lebanon from storms, with the army as its mainstay and the state that represents the Lebanese people as its sole authority. This cabinet will give a cover to the Lebanese Armed Forces and will provide its needs in order to end the conflict in Tripoli. Instructions were given to fiercely strike [against] whoever [dares to] target any member of the army.»
Tammam Salam, Lebanese Prime Minister
«The situation in Tripoli is very dangerous and it reminds us of the start of the Lebanese [civil war] in 1975. The cabinet would soon take decisive, radical, and balanced measures to restore calm. The security forces deployment in Arsal and other border areas is an outstanding achievement.»
General Jean Kahwaji, Lebanese Armed Forces Chief
«The army is ready to preserve security and stability and fight terrorism across the entire country. The army is prepared to immediately and firmly intervene to solve any emergency security incident. The army will not give up on its national duty and will remain at the service of all the Lebanese. I call on military personnel to have more awareness and sharpness at this critical stage Lebanon is going through.»
Samir Geagea, Lebanese Firces leader
«March 8 is not serious about Michel Aoun’s candidacy, its definite candidate is Marada Movement leader Suleiman Franjieh. It is about time that March 14 stopped standing by. This is a battle for the republic and not a battle for a gendarmerie commander, or a general manager, or a parliamentary seat. We are seeking to have a strong, non-medial prime minister and that is why we must seek to have a strong president from our political group.»
Beshara Rai, Maronite Patriarch
«The next president must be strong, patriotic, and have good relations with the international community. However, it would be shameful for Lebanon to wait for the the international community to dictate that president’s name. We may ask for the international community’s opinions, but we should not ask it who it wants.»
The Lebanese army deployed on Sunday in the Beirut neighborhood of Al-Gharbi and put an end to the clashes that erupted overnight between a group affiliated with Arab Movement Party leader Shaker al-Berjawi and other Salafists, right behind the Al-Madina al-Riyadiya sporting center, the National News Agency reported Sunday. According to the MTV television, a man identified as Nabil al-Hanash was killed, and more than 12 others were injured. Berjawi blamed the clashes on members of the Future Movement and Salafists, and accused them of assaulting officials from his party. “Members of the Future [Movement] and Salafists tried to raid our office in the morning using machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, and we countered them,” Berjawi told Al-Jadeed television.
The number of Syrians who have fled the besieged town of Al-Hosn and entered Lebanese territory has reached 300, the National News Agency reported on Saturday. It added that the refugees are being temporarily housed by families in the northern border area of Wadi Khaled until proper shelter is found for them. Meanwhile, hospitals in North Lebanon’s Miniyeh continued to receive wounded from the Syrian regime’s shelling of Al-Hosn, some of whom were in critical condition. Syrian regime forces seized the famed Crusader castle Krak des Chevaliers on Thursday, killing dozens of rebels in the surrounding area and sending scores fleeing across the nearby Lebanese border. They entered the fortress after fierce clashes in the nearby village of Al-Hosn, which a pro-regime militia chief said had left at least 40 rebels dead.
Al Joumhouria (Lebanese Daily close to March-14 coalition)
(March 21, 2014)
President Michel Suleiman said that while he fears a power vacuum in the country after his departure, recent achievements could prevent a presidential void from occurring.
“I will hand over [my powers] and return to my home, as I have performed what my patriotic duty and conscience dictate. However, I fear a vacuum may [result,]” Suleiman told Al-Joumhouria.
“[Despite this fear], formation of the cabinet, agreement on the ministerial statement and scheduling of a session for the national dialogue all contribute to a positive dynamism [that may bring about] presidential elections [within the constitutional timeframe].”
Al Akhbar (Lebanese Daily close to the Lebanese Resistance)
Ghassan Saoud (March 22, 2014)
The violent clashes between armed militants and the Lebanese army appear to be a repeat of the incidents in Sidon’s suburb of Abra. Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi – a known patron of armed groups in the city – will not hesitate to capitalize and invite the army to take control of the city. But until then, Rifi’s Future Movement has no qualms about aggravating the situation and complicating the army’s mission, if only to improve the Future Movement’s bargaining hand.
Three weeks ago, masked assailants shot and killed two people and wounded six others in various parts of Tripoli. At the time, many thought this was just an additional “skirmish” in the bloody war waged by the takfiris in the city against its Alawi residents. However, the security services, without making this public, noticed that the victims this time were not Alawi, and that the majority of them were, in fact, affiliated with the Lebanese army intelligence.
On Friday, the army announced in an official statement that an improvised explosive device was detonated in the Bahsas area near an army patrol. According to unconfirmed reports, this is the second attack of its kind against the army in less than 48 hours, which indicates just how dramatically things have escalated in the latest round of violence in Tripoli.
To be sure, the fighting has now evolved from being clashes between Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen, to a confrontation between dozens of armed groups and the Lebanese army, with the militants directly attacking soldiers and army conveys with small arms, grenades, and RPGs.
As far as the public in Tripoli is concerned, there has been a deafening silence at various levels, even though the militants are the only ones who benefit from this.
Politically, it’s even worse. Several Tripoli MPs and political organizations known as the Islamic National Gathering and the Dignitaries of Bab al-Tabbaneh met at the home of MP Mohammed Kabbara, who is an opponent of Ashraf Rifi. Their demands were: First, rebuilding the trust between the city’s people and the army, by conducting a transparent inquiry into rumored killings of suspects, and reassessing “heavy-handed” security measures that the army has taken in some neighborhoods. And second, to punish all those involved in terrorist acts, beginning with the perpetrators of the bombings outside al-Taqwa and al-Salam mosques in August 2013.
For his part, Rifi, using his usual channels, has leaked his proposed solution that is nearly identical to that of Kabbara, ignoring the Takfiri threat, the fact that there are two – not one – sides in the historical conflict between Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen, and the direct attacks on the army.
Rifi’s demands were: First, for the army to withdraw from Bab al-Tabbaneh in order to “rebuild confidence,” with Rifi personally pledging to let the army respond to any fire from Jabal Mohsen. Second, to replace the leaders of military and security services, and unit commanders. And third, to disband the Alawi-dominated Arab Democratic Party and arrest its leader Ali Eid.
However, the demands that the Future Movement, led by Saad Hariri, is making face many paradoxes on the ground. First of all, the army has had to face protests, riots, and forced road closures in Future Movement strongholds, with Future Movement MPs holding the army responsible for any victims who fall in those areas. Secondly, the identities of those fighting in Tripoli have been disguised deliberately, with the Future Movement denying they are Hariri supporters, like Sheikh Nabil Rhim who denies they are al-Qaeda linked, and Rifi who denies that they are the same infamous “alleyway fighters.” Thirdly, around 200 fighters have reportedly been brought in from Syria to Tripoli’s slums.
Based on the above, one can form the following analysis: the Lebanese army is being distracted by armed mobs in Future Movement strongholds throughout Lebanon; the army is fighting “invisible fighters” in Tripoli who enjoy the silence from Tripoli’s officials; politicians are calling for army commanders to be replaced and endorsing the takfiris’ arguments; and an external party is supporting the army’s enemies, not only with weaponry, but also with fighters. Meanwhile, the attacks on the army have evolved from conventional tactics to assassinating army informants and using IEDs and car bombs.
What is happening in Tripoli now is not just another round of fighting. What the Future Movement is proposing, through Kabbara and Rifi, is to give them in peacetime what they failed to get in wartime: The execution of Ali Eid; purging the city of takfiris; handing over security services to the Future Movement; and declaring an economic state of emergency to pump money and aid through Future Movement MPs and ministers.
But the Future Movement cannot wash its hands clean of the systematic exhaustion of the Lebanese army in pro-Hariri strongholds, because the riots are not spontaneous and always take place at well calculated moments, such as what happened with the recent riots “in solidarity with Ersal.”
Indeed, even when takfiris like Ahmed al-Assir tried to ambush the army in June 2013, they failed all too clearly. So is the Future Movement willing to admit today that there is another party able to mobilize the street in this way in its own strongholds? If so, then the international community and Hezbollah must look for that party and deal with it directly, and cut the middleman out, i.e. the Future Movement.
In regards to the “siege” of Ersal, which the Future Movement likes to invoke in their incitements and threats, it is merely a security measure, and has nothing to do with a classical siege involving the movement of people and goods. Its sole aim is to limit the entry of explosive-laden cars from the wilderness surrounding Ersal to the rest of Lebanon, which is something that Future Movement MPs like to ignore completely.
According to credible sources, there are two main groups fighting the army in Tripoli today: The first comprises supporters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), al-Nusra Front, and Shadi Mawlawi, bolstered by more than one hundred fighters who arrived from Syria in the past two days, with one hundred more expected to join them as soon as they leave the hospitals where they are being treated.
The second is led by pro-Hariri figure, Amid Hammoud, who would not have become involved were it not for a green light from the Future Movement. However, sources do not rule out the possibility that Rifi had pushed Hammoud into the battle to drag the takfiris into a war with the army, which would put an end to them once and for all, while also fulfilling a U.S.-Saudi demand to eliminate takfiri groups outside Syria.
Some even say that Rifi would not be too upset if Hammoud were to suffer the same fate, given his sustained attempts to compete with Rifi.
The Future Movement is playing with fire in every sense. It has not brandished its swords to fight the takfiris, as many had expected, and it did not disavow them. Instead, the Future Movement is hindering the work of the army.
Making matters worse, the Future Movement is providing political cover and logistical and medical support for takfiris who want nothing more in life than to blow themselves up, inviting the Syrian crisis into Lebanon. Everything the Future Movement and its allies say from now on about Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria is meaningless; Hezbollah sends fighters from Lebanon to Syria, but the Future Movement brings fighters from Syria to Lebanon.
The public opinion will no doubt notice the difference soon enough. Every statement that the Future Movement figures make, calling on the army to do its duty and fight the takfiris, is doublespeak, aimed at protecting the latter, justifying their actions, and prolonging the crisis.
Al Akhbar (March 21, 2014)
Since the start of the Syrian crisis, a lot has been said about the Qatari, Saudi and Turkish roles in supporting the Syrian opposition and the armed groups. The Kuwaiti role, on the other hand, has not been exposed even though it is has been effective and influential. It is also different from the role played by the aforementioned countries, at least officially.
The Kuwaiti ruling family did not adopt this role publically, but at the same time it did not try to curb it. That is despite the fact that the Kuwaiti role has been a public one, featuring former and current Kuwaiti MPs, as well as Salafi clerics. It plays out on more than one front including funding and exporting jihadis. The Kuwaiti role involved not only creating military operation rooms and directing the course of certain battles, but also giving direct orders to commit massacres and then boasting about them.
A massacre was committed in the village of Hatla in Deir al-Zour’s countryside last June in which 60 victims were killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. People were killed with Kuwaiti knives and purely for sectarian reasons. Just like al-Nusra Front boasted at the time that it “cleansed Hatla of the Shia,” Kuwaiti Sheikh Shafi al-Ajami boasted of “slaughtering Shias with knives” amidst cheers and cries of “God is great.” Saudi, Qatari and Kuwaiti media outlets celebrated the massacre each in its own way. When a journalist from Asia News Agency asked Ajami a few days later “if he feared that the Kuwaiti authorities might arrest him,” he replied: “This is an issue that concerns me and the Kuwaiti authorities,” who did not lift a finger.
After its dispute with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Kuwaiti Salafis played a central role in funding al-Nusra Front. The nature of the relationship between the two sides changed from implementing specific missions and getting paid for them, like the Hatla massacre, to ongoing funding and supervision.
A jihadi source told Al-Akhbar that “al-Ummah Party under the leadership of Hakim al-Mutairi is now active in financing and directing al-Nusra Front.” The source says that there were leaks that revealed his role. According to those leaks, “Hajaj al-Ajami is Mutairi’s man in Syria. After disagreements erupted between al-Nusra Front and ISIS, Ajami took advantage of al-Nusra Front’s need for money and agreed with its leaders to provide them with support.” This support was coupled with Ajami’s recommendation of Kuwaiti mujahideen who became sharia officials and leaders within al-Nusra Front such as Abu Hassan al-Kuwaiti, who was until recently, one of the influential sharia officials.
According to the leaks, “he [Abu Hassan al-Kuwaiti] does not have enough education to qualify him to hold a position with influence on al-Nusra leaders.” Ajaj Ajami was not the only Kuwaiti to fund al-Nusra. According to the same source, “al-Nusra Front accepted the funding from Shafi Ajami who provided it with about a million US dollars so far.” Kuwaiti endeavors have also succeeded in prompting some brigades to swear allegiance to al-Nusra Front. This, the source says, means that “Mutairi has taken root in al-Nusra Front and seized control of it not only through sharia officials and funding, but also by penetrating the group through entire factions that pledge allegiance to him directly.”
It should be noted that a number of Kuwaiti media outlets promoted the sharia officials of al-Nusra Front and their role in “demonstrating the deviation in ISIS’s thought.” They also claimed that “these preachers are known for their diligence in seeking to learn, and their history of knowledge is well-known.”
Kuwaiti support for al-Nusra Front is not new, it was preceded by a lot of support initiatives that continue to this day to provide hardline armed groups with millions of dollars in cash and arms.
The Council of Supporters is one such initiative. Its formation was declared in December 2012 and it includes clerics, activists and former MPs such as Mohammed Hayef, who serves as the secretary general of the Council of Supporters.
Some of the most prominent members of the council are Dr. Fahd al-Khinah, Dr. Othman al-Khamis, Dr. Farhan al-Shamry, Dr. Nayef al-Ajami, Mohammed Dawi and Abdel Mane al-Sawwan. The council plays a vital role in funding a number of armed groups, such as Ahrar al-Sham, as Kuwaiti support played a primary role in its formation.
The Council of Supporters was the real player behind the creation of the Damascus operations room in September 2013. It included Jaysh al-Islam, al-Furqan Brigades, al-Habib al-Mustafa Brigades, the Islamic Ahrar al-Sham Movement, the Companions Brigades and Battalions and the Army of the Muslims Brigade. A paragraph in its declaration of formation was dedicated to thanking the council, which has “graciously supported our operations room in all areas from military and logistic support to relief and moral support.”
The campaign was publicly launched in June 2013 at the same time as the Hatla massacre and was titled: “Kuwait’s Major Campaign to Prepare 12,000 Invaders for Syria.” The title was eventually mitigated by replacing the word “invader” with “mujahid.” The campaign collected 8.4 million Kuwait dinars (about US$ 30 million). Its main promoters were MPs Walid al-Tabtabaai, Jomaan al-Harbash, Mubarak al-Walaan, Falah al-Sawwagh, Badr al-Dahoum, Nayef al-Midras and Hamad al-Mattar. In addition to clerics Shafi al-Ajami, Abdul Aziz al-Fadli and Hajaj al-Ajami.
Sheikh Hajaj bin Fahd al-Ajami played a central role in establishing an operations room for Syria’s coastal areas, which managed the attack on the villages of the northern Latakia countryside a few months ago. Ajami met at the time with a number of leaders of armed groups in the Latakia countryside, including Omar al-Shishani, the leader of the Army of Emigrants and Supporters. He convinced them to establish the operations room and launch the battle for Syria’s coastal area. Ajami is considered one of the most prominent supporters and financiers of Islamist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham Movement. He plays a prominent role in providing the mujahideen with money through associations, some of which operate under the cover of humanitarian relief.
This gathering represents one of the tribal activities supporting the revolution. It is controlled by the al-Ajman tribe, a sub-tribe of Yam. The gathering organizes campaigns to collect donations. Its funds are used in two ways, public relief work and clandestine arming. The last campaign was organized in October 2013 in the name of the Martyrs of al-Ajman and Yam tribe in Syria in “honor of the memory of some of the tribal men who were martyred, in Syria in defense of God’s religion and Muslims’ sanctity,” according to the statement made by the campaign’s general supervisor Nader Khamis bin Dakla al-Ajami.
The gathering cooperates with the Council of Supporters of the Syrian Revolution in Kuwait whose secretary general admitted in a speech he gave at the launch of the campaign that he “gives 70 percent of his support to the Army of Islam in Damascus.” Among those present were a number of official figures including ambassador Abdul Aziz al-Subaie, honorary president of the Arab Union of Childhood Ambassadors, who honored those in charge of the campaign.
Former Kuwaiti MP Walid al-Tabtabai is considered one of the most influential figures among the armed groups in Syria. He frequently visits the areas under their control. He makes sure that the aid collected in Kuwait reaches these groups either in the form of cash to cover the fighters’ salaries, or in the form of arms shipments. Opposition media sources confirmed that one of his visits to the Idlib countryside lasted four months during which he participated in planning some operations.
In September 2013, Tabtabai appeared in a video clip on Youtube during his participation in preparing and launching Grad missiles allegedly at the Syrian coast. Many of the supporters of the revolution have expressed their gratitude for his effective contribution, including “his keenness on tightening the siege imposed on the two towns of Nubl and al-Zahraa in the Aleppo countryside.” Opposition sources confirm that Tabtabai is one of the godfathers of this siege. In November 2013 a rumor emerged that “he was injured after an air raid targeted a meeting he was having with 10 leaders of the armed groups in the Aleppo countryside.” Others claimed that he was killed before he gave a statement from Kuwait denying such reports.
Al Akhbar (March 21, 2014)
Racha Abi Haidar
“I salute al-Nusra, the vanquisher of infidels,” “al-Qusayr hasn’t and will not fall, but you will,” “al-Qalamoun is ready for you so come to your graves in it,” “Yabrud: the city of skulls”… These are some examples of the slogans spray painted on the walls of Yabrud, the Syrian city that was no one’s grave. In fact, the battle here was short as those making daring threats fled the scene.
The amount of destruction in Yabrud is limited compared to cities that witnessed fierce fighting. It is clear that the fighters didn’t leave in a hurry since they had time to pack and take most of their belongings with them. Bags left on the side of the street contain Syrian passports, and one Lebanese passport. Although a mop-up operation was carried out in the city, Syrian army soldiers and Hezbollah fighters are still raiding some areas in search of weapons caches, and stolen or explosives-rigged cars.
Many vacant buildings were damaged by the bombings, which left many houses and empty shops without doors and windows. Some soldiers were sitting on balconies waving to those passing by and raising victory signs. Army soldiers, the republican guards and People’s Committees were deployed everywhere, mainly in the city center where the Syrian flag was raised a few days ago. Celebratory gunfire erupted occasionally and sporadic clashes echoed from nearby regions still witnessing some fighting. Meanwhile, artillery shells hitting Flita haven’t stopped yet.
As media personnel started to leave the city center, soldiers finally got some time to rest; some slept under the sun at a public garden while others played football.
Yabrud, a city praised by opposition fighters as “the graveyard of the Syrian army and Hezbollah” fell on Saturday at noon, and according to a field commander, the battle “only took 24 hours.” Standing on a green hill overlooking the villages of al-Sahl, Mazaraat Rima, and the rest of the region, one can figure out the course of the battle and how fighters managed to flee the siege.
On our way uphill, we encountered soldiers resting on the ground while another soldier was hanging his wet army suit. Meanwhile, security forces monitored the situation on the hilltop, located in front of Mar Maroun hill. “Following the siege of the hills surrounding Yabrud, all fighters fled,” the commander explained.
He noticed similarities with al-Qusayr battle when fighters retreated after the army took control of the surrounding hills. Hence, Yabrud didn’t witness any fierce fighting because the heavy clashes took place on the outskirts of the city.
According to the field commander, Mar Maroun hill played a prominent role in paving the way to enter Yabrud after the fighters “were completely besieged.” “Twenty-six hundred fighters were inside the city; most of them belonged to al-Nusra Front and the others were combatants who had fled al- Qusayr countryside” the commander said, revealing that “30 fighters were captured.”
He stressed that “Yabrud was a military and a political message,” and that “more surprises are on the way.” The army found some belongings of al-Nusra fighters, like clothes carrying their labels, “however they haven’t left anything else behind, they moved most of the stuff before fleeing.”
Most of Yabrud’s residents left the city as the battle escalated in neighboring Mazraat Rima, but a few families remain. When we asked about civilians, a soldier pointed to a house, saying “we found a husband and a wife who never left the town.”
We headed straight towards the house, and waited a few minutes. A lady in her mid-fifties with red cheeks rushed to welcome us. “I swear we are blessed to see you,” she said sobbing. She told us how she hid with her husband Mohammed inside their house during the battle. They didn’t have to turn off the lights because there was no electricity in the first place. They listened to the deafening noise of shells, mainly in the last two days before the army entered the city, “our house was shaking.”
The middle aged couple insisted on offering us something to eat. Malak hurried to bring us coffee and candy, saying “we made provisions that would last us a month.” Mohammed owns a barbershop and he has been living with his wife in this house for ten years. They are originally from Aleppo “but work here has been better, so why should we leave?” Asked about why they haven’t fled the city, Mohammed said “we believed in the Syrian army and they haven’t let us down.” He added “we were besieged but thank God we had food so we weren’t worried,” then he proceeded to talk about the situation in Syria “kid, the situation in the country is just like a movie but taking place in real life.” His wife interrupted him by saying “Yabrud citizens are loving and smart, they love learning,” adding “we are from Aleppo, we have been living here for 10 years and no one ever harassed us.”
Mohammed kept working as a barber when the fighters were in town, “I have a very social business and I meet a lot of people, I used to listen to them.” He had local clients and was even visited by opposition fighters, “they were all strangers, no one had a say over them, they were mercenaries. I used to cut their hair and just listen, we all did that here.”
Mohammed prayed for Syria to return to its old self, saying “it is just a phase, our family in Aleppo hasn’t fled; here, we have it easier.” Mohammed insisted that we take the candy, after all there were no stores or restaurants open, and it’s considered rude not to honor your guest.
On the city’s inner roads, we met two men in a civilian car. They were two employees from the electricity company sent in to fix the network before civilians start to come back.
Khaldoun Hadda, director of the Yabrud Electricity Department, left with his family to Damascus about a week ago but he is now back to his job. “We brought back electricity at the station ahead of the civilians’ return,” he said, stressing that life was normal and everything was okay until a week ago when clashes broke out in Mazaraat Rima.” His coworker also left to Deir Attiyah about a week ago. “We are all coming back, I expect residents to start returning in the next two days.”
Asked whether the city residents were harmed by the fighters, civilians and soldiers, they answered that citizens were spared for only one reason: “it’s a rich city; fighters controlled the factories and everything else, they were content.”
Nuns abducted from Mar Takla monastery in Maaloula were held for months in Yabrud. The video released by the kidnappers to display their compassion and good conduct toward the nuns was far from the stark reality of destruction and hatred they had left behind in Yabrud. Visiting the Greek Catholic Church of Yabrud, located a few miles away from al-Amal hospital, was enough to discover the horrific acts they had committed. As we headed toward the altar, we saw broken chairs and defaced paintings and icons. The head of a statute of Jesus was ripped from its body, and thrown on the floor with other parts of it scattered, while most Bibles were burnt. A Syrian soldier cleaning the site commented, “these are the trademarks of the armed takfiris.” As for the statute of the Virgin Mary, it was still standing but its face smashed in.
In a street neighboring the church, an old woman stood in front of her big house with pictures of President Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah on the door. Oum Adib warmly welcomed us in. She and her husband also stayed in the city, “we had no place else to go, what can we do? We put our destiny in the hands of God, we are believers,” she said.
Abu Adib came out with a coffeepot, insisting that we taste the special coffee of Yabrud. He cursed the opposition fighters and praised the Syrian army, saying “these are heroes; we were under their protection and we haven’t left, they didn’t let us down.” Oum Adib also cursed the opposition, saying “we kept to ourselves; we knew the army was coming in, we tolerated the situation and stayed in place.” Asked how they were able to survive, they responded “we had provisions that could last a month.”
A few miles away, an old man named Hisham lived with his ailing wife. He said “my wife is sick and we are disabled, so where can we go?” Though he had difficulties moving, he held a teapot and some teacups as he roamed around between reporters. He asked us for a cell phone so he can call his son studying in Deir Attiyah, “I just want to assure him that we are okay. He hasn’t heard from us for days.”
Hisham also refused to leave the city, saying that he used to keep to himself , “maybe they have harassed others but there was nothing they could have wanted from us.” He then left us to check on his wife, saying “I cannot leave her alone for long”, but before he went back to her, he left us with few words: “we are not scared to die, I was born in Syria and I will die here.”
Al Akhbar (March 21, 2014)
"It is no longer an exaggeration to speak of the birth of a front in the north," according to a pundit in the [Israeli] newspaper Haaretz, commenting on the security developments in the occupied Shebaa Farms and Golan Heights. It could be the most accurate phrase describing the reality of the borders of Lebanon, Syria, and Occupied Palestine.
For a year or more, Israel has been making predictions for what will happen on its northern border, concluding that its actions are no longer restricted. However, its hands are not entirely free. Its predictions are strongly based on the enemy's confidence that Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Iran behind them are not concerned with igniting a war with Israel due to their entanglement in the crisis in Syria. This prediction was bolstered in the past year after Israel launched raids on Syrian targets without generating any response from Damascus.
Acting like a spoiled child, Israel thought that it would be appropriate to simply adopt similar measures with Lebanon. However, the enemy’s confidence was profoundly shaken after the attack on a Hezbollah position on the Lebanese-Syrian borders in February.
The enemy’s mistaken prognosis of the nature of the Syrian regime or Hezbollah's reply to its constant harassment is not Israel's only problem. It was also its assumption that the situation could be contained if it acted unilaterally.
While it is true that enemy forces bombarded Syrian positions in the occupied Golan Heights, Israel is aware that this will not change any facts on the ground.
The fiery message that it received over the past few days indicates that it is no longer allowed to make unilateral assumptions about the situation on the ground. Israel probably needed a practical warning, which Hezbollah made sure to give in several ways.
However, the warning was not limited to screaming or cursing, it was more like a"slap on the wrist." This forces Israel into limited options: deal with the pain, kick and scream to resolve the problem, or respond with a blow below the belt to force the other side to back down.
Practically, Israel tried its luck by attacking a Hezbollah position on the Syrian border with the Bekaa. It did not ignore Hezbollah's statement maintaining the inevitability of its right to respond, but it did not know how and where Hezbollah’s response would be.
And then, suddenly, everything changed with a rocket attack on a position near Mount Hermon and the planting of explosives on the borders with the occupied Golan.
Hezbollah did not claim responsibility, although Israel made the accusation and hoped that this was the party's response. In this scenario, it would have been able to use the "denial option" and end the game. But this would have been seen as a faint reply, which is a sign of weakness, enhancing the enemy's assumption that it is possible to change the rules of the game.
But Hezbollah knows Israel well, even more than necessary. The party knows best when Israel understands the message, helping it to digest it, or even pulling it by the arm to act by it. Here, the Israeli pupil needed another course. A Hezbollah commando unit moved into the occupied Shebaa Farms, avoiding all precautions and planting two explosive devices. One blew up when an Israeli patrol approached and the other was left for the occupying soldiers to find later.
The first explosive's type and powerful impact, in addition to the second explosive, which were both placed inside a special package so Israel would know who sent them, embarrassed Israel. The enemy replied with a shot in the air on a position in Adaisseh, hoping that Hezbollah’s response had been completed.
Then came the Golan explosive. It was skillfully prepared, according to the Israelis who suspiciously claimed that there were no casualties. This time, the accusation cannot be levied against only Hezbollah. To be more precise, it was uncertain that it was Hezbollah. But the test does not mean that Israel is capable of remaining silent, so it responded by attacking Syrian army positions, accusing them of responsibility for the explosive.
The enemy's reaction was accompanied by clear statements from its leaders and security sources. Assad's opponents could not be accused of being responsible for the attack. Everyone knows that Israel wants a piece of the Syrian crisis. Its apprehensions of chaos at the borders did not lead to exceptional measures.
According to the enemy’s leaders, Israel was never in danger in the three years of regime opposition fighters being close to the Golan. But today, someone has opened the door for a war of attrition leading it back to the Lebanese quagmire, or even to the situation before the October 1973 war.
What if the issue is illustrated in a useful manner?
Israel recognizes that Hezbollah is fighting in Syria to help a supportive regime. This means that Israel knows that Hezbollah is fighting to protect the resistance axis. Israel also sees that Assad is unable – or unwilling – to respond to its attacks, because he is busy with the internal battle. Based on this logic, it is better for the enemy, and those who might be concerned, to start acting on the basis that Israel will be facing, day-by-day, a bigger problem on its northern border. While it is true that Syria and the Resistance are not interested in war, it would be wrong to assume that they do not have the strength to fight.
The huge mistake that was made by Israel's allies in the West and the region led to the removal of all obstacles facing the unity of the Syrian and Lebanese fronts confronting it.
Al Akhbar (March 20, 2014)
As soon as parliament gives its vote of confidence to the new government led by Tammam Salam, Lebanon’s political factions are set to begin preparations for the upcoming presidential election. Yet it is not the constitutional deadline beginning on Tuesday that will be the starting gun for the expected showdown, but rather the fact the 2014 election has been preempted with new rules: two tough candidates who represent the upper ceilings of Lebanon’s two main rival camps.
March 8 and March 14 are entering a tough presidential battle for the second time since their inception as political coalitions in 2005.
Contrary to what happened in the 2007 election, when the battle began early, at least several months before the end of then-President Emile Lahoud’s term – including a bitter constitutional quarrel and March 14 threatening to impose its candidate with 50 percent of the vote plus one – the two camps are now talking modestly about the constitution.
So far at least, they are not straining to interpret Article 49, which is the article the outlines the election of the president, but they have put forward different rules for the battle. There is no debate about the quorum in parliament this time, or about which candidate each camp will try to impose, and there are no threats about seeking help from external parties to win.
In the 2007 election, March 14 said that it had more than one candidate from its ranks, proposing figures like MPs Boutros Harb and Robert Ghanem, and the late MP Nassib Lahoud. For its part, the March 8 camp, specifically Hezbollah, refrained from voicing its public support for the candidacy of MP Michel Aoun, without distancing itself from him since it never suggested an alternative candidate.
Today, after the formation of Tammam Salam’s government consumed months of what would have been the normal timeframe for the presidential election campaign, and long before the constitutional deadline, March 8 and March 14 seem confused about how to deal with it, as neither side seems to have an initiative or a clear position on the election.
Meanwhile, there have been no serious signals from the international community, especially Western powers, in this regard. With the exception of the qualities that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad recently said the “pro-resistance” president should have, none of the Arab countries have so far shown any enthusiasm to play a direct role in the “making” of the new Lebanese president either. This is an additional reason to believe the presidential election has no particular significance for anyone in the international community right now, unlike previous rounds.
In 1989 and 1998, the West supported, without reservation, Damascus’s candidates; Presidents Elias Hrawi and Emile Lahoud, and also the extension of Hrawi’s term in 1995. Then, when Damascus sought to extend Lahoud’s term, Western powers objected, with the UN Security Council issuing resolution 1559 to thwart the move in 2004. In 2008, Qatar, Syria, and most Arab countries endorsed the settlement reached in Doha and the election of President Michel Suleiman, albeit six months after the constitutional deadline.
For the first time in years then, the election appears like a ball in an abandoned court. More than any time in the past, especially in relation to the 2007 election, Maronite leaders are behaving on the basis that they are the key, while the Sunni and Shia parties are keeping mum, not wanting to enter into the details of the election, or into the mysterious and ambiguous criteria for candidates.
On the surface, it appears as though the election boils down to two men who are both arguing that a “strong president” must be elected, but who have different and contradictory interpretations for what that means. Neither sees the other as a strong president.
These two candidates are MP Michel Aoun of the Free Patriotic Movement and the leader of the Lebanese Forces, Samir Geagea. However, other candidates from both March 8 and March 14, such as former President Amin Gemayel, MPs Boutros Harb, Suleiman Franjieh, and Robert Ghanem, do not share this view. They do not see themselves as strong candidates going by those criteria, but they don’t believe this is a prerequisite for the post -- unless something unexpected were to happen.
On the anniversary of March 14, Geagea made a speech similar to that of assassinated President Bashir Gemayel – when he was still leader of the Lebanese Forces – at the anniversary of the Kataeb Party in November 1981. In that speech, Bashir Gemayel talked about himself at length, presenting his own qualities as ideal for the presidency, at a time when it was difficult for anyone to believe he could be elected.
Geagea did the same thing, more than three decades later, in a similar speech. When Israel invaded south Lebanon the following year, on June 6, 1982, Bashir told then-Information Minister Michel Edde, at the entrance to the Baabda Palace, and overheard by the Soviet ambassador, “Sorry Michel, I will be the president.” Before that, Bashir had pledged to Edde that he would support him as a presidential candidate.
But the unexpected happened; the Israeli invasion, and Bashir was elected. So perhaps Aoun and Geagea are waiting for an equally important event to take place in order to pave their way to the presidential palace.
Neither Aoun nor Geagea has been endorsed by their Sunni or Shia allies. It might be early to expect this to happen, if it happens at all. Aoun and Geagea did not suggest that they had decided to run for the post in coordination with their respective allies.
The two men are behaving as though they are trying to drag their allies to endorse them, and embarrass other candidates in March 8 and March 14 and beyond, as if to say that there is no room for those as long as Aoun and Geagea represent the Christian spearheads of the Shia and Sunni factions, respectively.
The two men are also making the case for a candidate who has exceptional popularity, and argue that the Christians must choose the president from within the two main parties – March 8 and March 14. Aoun and Geagea, in all what they have said about the presidential election so far, have implicitly stressed their rejection of any other options, a la 2007; that there should be no amendment of the constitution to allow certain figures to be elected - such as army commanders - and no weak candidates from outside the two main camps.
Neither Aoun nor Geagea have put forward a special interpretation of what the quorum should be like for the election session, and both have agreed to the normal procedures of electing a president, namely, with a sufficient number of MPs (two-thirds) meeting and voting. In other words, they do not mind having a real competition and allow whoever obtains the majority to win. Both men believe a president will be elected in the second round, as neither one of them will be able to win from the first round.
But perhaps more importantly, Aoun and Geagea have discounted the possibility of electing a so-called consensus president, the antithesis of their “strong president.” In effect, Aoun and Geagea have a joint position, namely, going into the election as defiant and provocative candidates who are affiliated to one of the two factions of the Lebanese divide – because only by being as such, they believe, these candidates can give their opponents the guarantees they require, and force them through without abandoning their allies.
Aoun and Geagea have brought the election to a head, in a way that envisages restoring the traditions of past presidential elections. For decades, there were elections that saw multiple rounds and real competition before and during the voting session, sometimes with two equally strong candidates: Camille Chamoun and Hamid Franjieh in 1952; Fouad Chehab and Raymond Edde in 1958; Suleiman Franjieh and Elias Sarkis in 1970; and Elias Sarkis and Raymond Edde in 1976, down to the last true competition seen in Parliament in 1989, between Rene Moawad, George Saadeh, and Elias Hrawi.
Okaz (Saudi Daily, March 22, 2014)
Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam called for fortifying Lebanon against the repercussions of the Syrian crisis. “Fortifying Lebanon against the ramifications of the Syrian crisis is a very important mission whose responsibility does not only fall on the cabinet, but on all political forces,” Salam told Okaz in an interview.
He added that “the Syrian war is happening at Lebanon’s doorstep and its repercussions are starting to show in Lebanon through terrorist acts.” Salam stressed that “there is a big division in the country over core issues, especially Hezbollah’s weapons.” “Rival parties have realized that they need to sit at the same table in the government to achieve the national interest.”
The New York Times (March 20, 2014)
The former American envoy for Syria said that President Bashar al-Assad of Syria was likely to remain in power for the “medium term” and that a year from now the country would probably still be under the control of competing factions.
“It is hard to imagine that Assad is going in the short term, and even in the medium term, to lose control of the area between Aleppo south to Damascus and then over to the coast,” said the diplomat, Robert S. Ford.
“He will control that area — geographically it is maybe a fourth of the country,” said Mr. Ford, who added that it includes most of Syria’s major cities. “But the other three-quarters will be under the control of different armed elements or contested among different armed elements.”
Mr. Ford served as the American ambassador to Syria and as the senior diplomat working with the Syrian opposition. He retired from the State Department last month, and his appearance at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars on Thursday was one of the first since he left government.
Mr. Ford’s assessment was starkly different from one the Obama administration presented as recently as last year, when it insisted that Mr. Assad’s days were numbered and that he was losing a battle of attrition with the moderate opposition.
Mr. Ford said there were three reasons Mr. Assad had been able to hang on to power. First, Mr. Ford said, the Syrian opposition had been unable to assure the Alawite minority that it would not be threatened by Mr. Assad’s overthrow. “First and foremost,” Mr. Ford said, the Syrian opposition “has been very unsuccessful at explaining an agenda that would not threaten the communities that are the pillars of support for the regime, first and foremost the Alawite community.” Mr. Assad himself is an Alawite.
Another factor that has helped Mr. Assad’s prospects has been “Iranian and Russian financing and huge amounts of arms coming from both Russia and Iran.” Tehran’s decision to encourage Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia, and Iraqi Shiite fighters to join the fray has also provided the Syrian government with badly needed manpower, Mr. Ford said.
The third factor is that the Assad government has had a “certain unity and coherence, which is lacking on the opposition side,” he said.
Mr. Ford appeared to hold out little hope that diplomacy could resolve the crisis anytime soon. He said the Syrian government was not interested in negotiating the establishment of a transitional administration that could govern the country if Mr. Assad yielded power. Nor, he added, has the United States had any serious negotiations over the Syria crisis with Tehran.
Mr. Ford was cautious in describing military options to increase the pressure on the Assad government to negotiate a political settlement, adding that the “the president has never taken that completely off the table.”
Asked what he thought Syria might look like a year from now, he said it would probably be “more and more cantonized” and a “patchwork” controlled by competing factions.
“I wish I could say, ‘Oh, I think we will have a solution by then,’ but I don’t see anything quick on the horizon,” he said. “I see no sign that the regional backers of the regime or the regional backers of the opposition are prepared to stand down.”
Mr. Ford is not the only current or former official to acknowledge Mr. Assad’s improved military position. In February, the top American intelligence official told Congress that Mr. Assad’s hold on power was strengthened after agreed to get rid of his chemical weapons arsenal and the White House shelved plans for a cruise missile attack.
On Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry appeared to recognize Mr. Assad’s tenacity on the battlefield in remarks to a group of university students.