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REPORTEDLY: U.S., HEZBOLLAH IN INDIRECT SECRET TALKS — The US and Hezbollah are in secret indirect talks managed by London dealing with the fight against Al-Qaida, regional stability and other Lebanese political issues. Senior British diplomatic sources said British diplomats are holding discussions with leaders of the Lebanese organization and transferring the information to the Americans. The discussions “are aimed at keeping tabs on the changes in the region and the world, and prepare for the upcoming return of Iran to the international community,” according to diplomatic sources in Washington. (Jerusalem Post, Nov. 27, 2013)
With Help From Tehran and Moscow, and Inaction by the U.S., Assad is Poised to Stay: Jonathan Spyer, Tablet, Nov. 13, 2013 — As the Syrian civil war grinds on toward its fourth year, no end appears in sight. It is the greatest disaster in the Levant in a generation: More than 115,000 people have died.
The Invisible Rider on the Deal: Michael Weiss, Now, Nov. 27, 2013 — Much has been written about the technical points of the P5+1 interim agreement that authorized international sanctions relief in exchange for a slowdown (but not cessation or cancellation) of Iran’s nuclear program.
Lebanese Salafis Amidst Syria’s War: Geneive Abdo, Foreign Policy, Nov. 28, 2013 — One recent cool and sunny afternoon in Lebanon's northern city of Tripoli, Sheikh Bilal Baroudi, a Sunni Salafist cleric, showed me the charred remains of the Salam mosque. He was preaching there on Aug. 24 when a bomb detonated, killing dozens of worshippers. Only a few walls remained. Middle East: Cracking Up: David Gardner, Financial Times, Nov. 26, 2013 — When Arabs started pouring on to the streets to challenge dynastic despots almost three years ago, a wave of euphoria swept over their world as its citizens dared to dream they were finally on their way into the 21st century.
Beirut Attack Marks Militant Resurgence: Maria Abi-Habib, Wall Street Journal, Nov. 21, 2013
Attack in Beirut Through the Lens of Hezbollah TV: Robert Mackey & Liam Stack, New York Times, Nov. 21, 2013
Dispatch From Syria: Can Rebels Learn to Govern?: Kristin Deasy, World Affairs, Nov/Dec., 2013
Tablet, Nov. 13, 2013
As the Syrian civil war grinds on toward its fourth year, no end appears in sight. It is the greatest disaster in the Levant in a generation: More than 115,000 people have died. Around 2 million refugees have departed the country—for Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and beyond—while untold more who have left their homes remain in Syria, seeking with increasing desperation to put themselves and their families out of reach of the guns. But while the war appears far from ending, its direction and likely outcome have shifted significantly in the past year. At the beginning of this year, the Assad regime looked beleaguered, with an end-game fast approaching. Rebel groups had entered the main cities, and Aleppo, the “capital of the north,” was largely in rebel hands. The battle for Damascus seemed about to begin as Assad’s foes pushed into the city’s eastern suburbs.
Today, as 2013 draws to a close, the situation looks very different. Bashar al-Assad is still in power and has succeeded in ending any immediate threat to his regime. He is no longer in control of the entirety of Syria—his overstretched forces have ceded around half the country’s territory, concentrating their strength in this region around the capital, the Alawite heartland of the western coast, and the area linking the two—but that was never the issue at stake this year. The question was whether the rebels would succeed in pushing into areas of regime control. They have not and are unlikely to in the immediate future. Indeed, rebel advances have ceased, and in some areas, the insurgents have been turned back. The lines between the two sides are largely static, although the daily death toll continues to mount.
The factors driving this new war of attrition derive from both the weakness and disorganization of the rebels, and the relative cohesion of the regime, in particular from the staunch assistance of its regional and global allies and backers, who have come together in unprecedented ways in the course of the last 18 months in order to prevent his downfall. Russia has continued to supply arms to the regime, and its veto power on the U.N. Security Council has prevented any coherent international response to the crisis. But it is Iran that has played the really crucial role in propping up the government. The Syrian central bank has announced that Iran has facilitated a credit line worth at least $4 billion to Assad. One Arab official estimated that Iran was providing around $700 million per month to Syria.
Meantime, the rebellion itself has fallen into disunity, muddying what was once a clear fight between a brutally oppressive, dictatorial regime and an apparently concerted rebellion against it. A local al-Qaida franchise, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), is clashing with less extreme Islamist groups, such as the Ahfad al-Rasoul Brigade. ISIS has proven itself one of the most effective of the Syrian rebel brigades in combat. It now administers major parts of rebel-held northern Syria. Its area of control includes the city of Raqqa, the only provincial capital to fall to the rebellion—but its extremist Islamist outlook has alienated many among the populace. The clash between ISIS and the non-al-Qaida Islamist forces is only a symptom of a larger malaise affecting the rebellion—its chronic inability to unify its ranks. There are, according to Charles Lister of Jane’s Information Group, now about a thousand separate rebel groupings or “brigades.” For an insurgency numbering at most around 100,000 fighters, this is an astonishing number. These brigades do not all operate entirely independently from one another. Rather, they are gathered into a bewildering and interlocking series of alliances.
The rebel-controlled area remains a patchwork of different fiefdoms of varying degrees of size and cohesion, each ruled over by a different rebel chieftain and militia. In addition to the fighting between ISIS and less extreme rebel groups, a second war within a war has erupted, this one between the Islamists and the Kurdish YPG militia, which controls a section of northeast Syria comprising around 10 percent of the country’s territory. The United States attempted to rationalize this situation by supporting the Supreme Military Council of Maj. Gen. Salim Idris, chief of staff for the Free Syrian Army. That initiative may now be judged to have failed. Still more glaring is the failure of the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition, to which Idris’ SMC was affiliated, to have any impact on events within the country.
The external leadership had a problem from the start in claiming the loyalty of fighting units within Syria to which it could offer little or nothing. In my many conversations with rebel fighters and opposition activists during my reporting trips into Syria, I never once heard a single positive or even non-mocking word regarding the external ‘leadership’ of the revolution. A commander of the Tawheed Brigade in Aleppo in the summer of 2012 expressed it most succinctly when he said that the Syrian revolution “would be led by those fighting and suffering within Syria, not those in hotels outside of it.” The absence of rebel unity and leadership has been a huge boon for Assad. It has been compounded, and partly caused, by the failure of the rebellion’s backers to offer it adequate support. American policy specifically and Western policy more generally toward the Syrian rebellion has proceeded erratically, in fits and starts. Both political and practical assistance have been late in coming and meager in nature…
[To Read The Full Article Follow This Link – ed. ]
Now, Nov. 27, 2013
Much has been written about the technical points of the P5+1 interim agreement that authorized international sanctions relief in exchange for a slowdown (but not cessation or cancellation) of Iran’s nuclear program. Much attention has also been paid to the anatomy of the deal, with an intense focus on secret Oman-based negotiations the Obama administration held with the Iranians as early as eight months ago. However, the details about breakout capacity, inspections regimes, and the dollar amount of actual sanctions relief have distracted from the invisible rider on this accord, which is Western acquiescence to Iran’s gradual takeover of Syria.
As analysts Mike Doran and James Glassman have written, the six-month nuclear deal may now be used to retroactively explain President Obama’s seeming incoherence in responding to nearly three years of a grave humanitarian catastrophe. At minimum, 110,000 people have been killed and many millions more Syrians internally or externally displaced, all while the Obama administration has rescued the United States from getting involved in what the President termed “someone else’s civil war,” knowing that Russia and Iran had no such compunctions. This is a policy for which he has been roundly criticized, not least by the majority of his own cabinet through well-timed leaks to American broadsheets. Obama’s failure to arm the anti-Assad rebels when they were still moderate and carried expectations of US help; his refusal to publicly disclose intelligence about the Assad regime’s dozen or so “small-scale” chemical weapons attacks even when other Western countries were angrily doing so; his improvised establishment, and then neglect, of a “red line” on large-scale chemical attacks – all this makes sense in the context of pursued rapprochement with Iran. “Rather than merely being feckless,” Doran and Glassman write, “the administration may actually have a long-term plan, and this initial nuclear deal is only a tactic in a broader strategy. The overall aim is a strategic partnership with Iran because the administration sees that country as the only island of stability in a sea of chaos and violence.”
This is the direst assessment that can be made of the White House’s intentions at Geneva, and conclusions that derive there from are quite cynical. Yet there’s some evidence to support Doran and Glassman’s thesis.
For one thing, although the administration still clings to vaguely democratic talking points about supporting the Syrian opposition and demanding Assad’s removal from power, it has not prevented Iran’s inheritance of the regime’s security detail, the breathtaking extent of which has never once been publicly articulated or condemned by Obama. True, the US Treasury Department sanctioned a handful of IRGC and Hezbollah figures for their involvement in Syria – not a hard thing to do when both groups had already been heavily sanctioned by the US – but the rhetorical fixation of this administration has always been on the composition of the rebels, specifically its jihadi quotient. When the bulk of the anti-Assad forces in Syria were still either defectors from the regime or civilians who had taken up arms to defend themselves, Hillary Clinton was comparing them to Hamas or saying she didn’t know who they were or saying that arming them might benefit al-Qaeda. (We now know she didn’t agree with this schizophrenic analysis and supported gun-running to the Free Syrian Army, as did almost every other relevant secretary or intelligence chief in the administration.) Even the supposed realpolitik of White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, who, according to The New York Times, “suggested that a fight in Syria between Hezbollah and al-Qaeda would work to America’s advantage,” was belied by the fact that the CIA shared intelligence with Hezbollah informing it that al-Qaeda-linked groups were planning terrorist attacks in the Party of God-dominated districts of south Lebanon "as well as other political targets associated with the group or its allies in Syria." For McDonough’s let-them-kill-each-other prescription to work, salafi cells in Tripoli must have also been tipped off by Langley about pending Hezbollah operations against them. Somehow I doubt that ever happened…
[To Read The Full Article Follow This Link – ed. ]
Foreign Policy, Nov. 28, 2013
One recent cool and sunny afternoon in Lebanon's northern city of Tripoli, Sheikh Bilal Baroudi, a Sunni Salafist cleric, showed me the charred remains of the Salam mosque. He was preaching there on Aug. 24 when a bomb detonated, killing dozens of worshippers. Only a few walls remained. While a construction crew worked tirelessly that afternoon to rebuild the gutted building, Baroudi blamed the attack on a local group of Alawites who back the Alawite president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad. He said his mosque — as well as the Taqwa Salafist mosque in Tripoli, which was bombed that same August day — had been targeted because members of both congregations support the insurgency in Syria. The Alawites are a minority sect with ties to the form of Shiism prevalent in Iran. They comprise a small portion of Lebanon's population of approximately 4.4 million people. The percentages of Shiites and Sunnis are not known and are a matter of speculation because the last census conducted in Lebanon was in 1932. The small Alawite community of Tripoli, Lebanon's second-most important city, has long been at odds with the local Sunnis. And soon after the Syrian uprising began, clashes broke out in the mountainous areas to the north of the city, between the Alawite-dominated neighborhood Jabal Mohsen and the Sunni-dominated Bab al-Tabbaneh.
"The Syrian regime wants to transport the conflict to us here," Baroudi told me that day. For him, as well as many other Sunnis I have met in this part of Lebanon, the twin bombings of the Tripoli mosques last summer were intended to heighten sectarian tensions. Baroudi told me Assad's regime was trying to foment violence by convincing local Shiite groups that the Sunnis were out to get them — and then supplying them with explosives. Whether or not this is true, there is no doubt that the sectarian divide in Lebanon has indeed been widening. Just this week, two explosions hit the Iranian Embassy in Beirut, in suicide attacks for which Abdullah Azzam Brigades, a Lebanese Sunni group with links to al Qaeda, has claimed responsibility.
The struggle to dislodge Assad has disturbed an unwritten social contract among Lebanon's many sects. The country secured a fragile peace after enduring a civil war from 1975 to 1990. Syria occupied Lebanon from 1976 until 2005, when it withdrew only due to international pressure. Syria has had a longstanding claim on Lebanon; during the Ottoman era, Lebanon was part of Greater Syria. But stability has been increasingly difficult to maintain since Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite movement backed by Iran, has actively supported Assad financially and militarily, including fighting alongside his troops inside Syria. The war next door is also inspiring distorted ideas. Baroudi and other Salafists accuse the United States of enabling the Shiites to stay in power in Syria. Some of the Salafists in Tripoli point to President Barack Obama's historic call to the newly-elected President Hassan Rouhani of Iran, as well as talks on Iran's nuclear program, as evidence that the U.S. government is now backing Iran in the Middle East. According to Baroudi, Washington "can no longer fight wars directly," and needs Tehran "to take on this role." And there is no ally "more loyal or more successful or more powerful" than Iran "to force the region into submission, weaken the Sunni, and extort the Gulf."
In October, in Bab al-Tabbaneh, one Salafist sheikh — who wished to remain unidentified out of concern for his safety — complained that even as the U.S. government had become less critical of Hezbollah because of warming ties with Iran, it readily condemned Sunni extremists. He did not respond when I reminded him that Washington considers Hezbollah to be a terrorist organization. Such misperceptions have a radicalizing effect. And many Lebanese academics, journalists, and officials I have spoken with over the last year believe that is precisely what Assad had hoped for: It bolsters the argument that his regime, no matter how brutal, is a better option than any Sunni-led government. "Assad wants to make the Syrian revolution not one of people against Assad, but one of Shiite-Sunni strife," Ali Amin, a journalist at Al Balad newspaper in Beirut and an expert on sectarianism, told me.
If this is indeed Assad's strategy, it appears to be working. Western governments, as well as Russia and Iran, seem to be scrambling to maintain stability in the region by negotiating a settlement with Assad that would leave his regime intact. They are hoping to hold negotiations in Geneva in December. Some Sunnis in Lebanon, perceiving the U.S. government to be endorsing the status quo in Syria, are feeling more threatened, and are increasingly ready to take up arms to fight for their survival. Such feelings of anger and desperation could be the motivation behind this week's attack on the Iranian Embassy and future violence inside Lebanon, which undoubtedly would end Lebanon's fragile social contract. One consequence of this assessment — however misguided — is that while progress toward a deal over Iran's nuclear program would calm minds in the West, it would unnerve many Sunnis in the Middle East. Their main concern is the Shiites' increasing influence, with Iran as their protector. As perceptions of Iran's growing power increase among the Sunnis, it is imperative for the United States to send a signal to the region that it is not taking sides in the sectarian conflict, which certainly will continue.
David Gardner Financial Times, Nov. 26, 2013
When Arabs started pouring on to the streets to challenge dynastic despots almost three years ago, a wave of euphoria swept over their world as its citizens dared to dream they were finally on their way into the 21st century. Now, it looks as if they have been pitched back almost a century, to the period after the first world war when the Arab territories of the Ottoman Empire were dismembered. Then, it was the imperial machinations of Britain and France that carved up their lands and future. Now, a raging civil war in Syria that is spilling over into neighbouring countries threatens to bulldoze post-Ottoman borders. Are the states of the Near East coming apart – especially along fault lines between Sunni and Shia Muslims that run from Beirut to Baghdad? Are the frontiers in the Levant about to shatter, spawning the Arab equivalent of a post-Soviet jigsaw?
The first contours of those frontiers were sketched by the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, a deal meant to limit Anglo-French rivalry in the Levant that might undermine the alliance against Germany. This fabled line in the sand, from Mediterranean Palestine to the Zagros Mountains on Iraq’s border with Iran, bisected Greater Syria and Mesopotamia into French and British mandates. It was later ratified by the League of Nations. These were spheres of influence tailored to Europe’s eastern empires rather than organic and cohesive future nation-states, much less the pan-Arab independence Britain had dangled to incite Arab revolt against Germany’s Ottoman allies. The vicious mayhem in Syria slicing up territory within and beyond its borders has already engendered a sort of geopolitical shorthand among pundits – the end of Sykes-Picot. But what seems to be happening looks messier – as last week’s twin suicide bombing of Iran’s embassy in Mediterranean Beirut well attests.
The driving force is the overarching struggle between Sunni and Shia, which knows no boundaries and is bursting through the arbitrary borders drawn by the British and French. Some see this as primarily an interstate struggle for regional power between Saudi Arabia and Iran. That is part of the story but hardly explains the ferocity of ethno-sectarian bloodletting, which rivals anything seen in the wars that succeeded the break-up of Yugoslavia. First Lebanon, in its 1975-90 civil war, then Iraq and now Syria have been convulsed by ethno-sectarian conflict. But what had been a Sunni-Shia subplot in the drama – going back to the schism in seventh century Islam – burst on to centre stage after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. That catapulted the Shia minority within Islam (a majority in Iraq) to power in an Arab heartland country for the first time since the fall of the heterodox Shia Fatimid dynasty in 1171. The regional balance of power tilted towards the Islamic Republic of Iran – Shia, Persian, with ambitions as a regional hegemon to rival Israel – and fanned the embers of the Sunni-Shia stand-off into millenarian flame. Iraq dissolved into a sectarian bloodbath, grinding minorities such as its ancient Christian communities between the wounded identities of the Sunni and Shia. Syria, similar in its ethno-sectarian make-up, is heading the same way, grafting the Sunni-Shia schism and Saudi-Iranian contest on to what started as another Arab struggle against tyranny. Both Iraq and Syria seem to have lost any sense of a national narrative.
Iraq, notionally a loose confederation, has virtually fragmented into three blocs: the Kurds, who have quasi-independence, in the north, Sunnis in the centre and Shia in the south. After the sectarian carnage of 2006-08, Baghdad is pretty much a Shia city. Syria is fragmenting much more messily. Bashar-al-Assad’s regime clings on but has lost parts of the north and northeast to the Kurds, and big chunks of eastern Syria to Sunni rebels. The Assads’ Alawite sect, an esoteric offshoot of Shiism, is dug in along the northwest coast and mountains – a briefly autonomous enclave in the 1930s under French rule. In the summer, Hizbollah, Iran’s paramilitary Lebanese ally, joined the fight to save the Assads and reopen the road from Damascus to the coast. Now, the Alawite enclave in effect stretches back into the Party of God’s strongholds in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, near where an essentially Sunni-Shia battle is raging in the Qalamoun mountains. And that is not all.
The cross-border region between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, known as the Jazeera, is turning into a Sunni emirate as disaffected Sunnis in western Iraq link up with Sunni rebels in eastern Syria, under the malign influence of al-Qaeda-linked jihadi groups – a potential strategic nightmare for the region. Syria’s Kurds, in de facto control of what they call western Kurdistan, are linking up with Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government. The spectre of a Greater Kurdistan – for 25m Kurds with no state and spread over Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran – has alarmed Turkey. Ankara, as part of its effort to end a 30-year Kurdish insurgency in Turkey’s southeast, is trying to draw (mainly Sunni) Syrian and Iraqi Kurds into a sort of economic and cultural Turkosphere. Iran, with longstanding links to local factions, is also courting the Kurds. It is tempting to see this as a return to the Millets – the fluid system of Ottoman administrative regions that allowed subject peoples a degree of autonomy and ethno-religious cohesion in exchange for loyalty to the empire, stability and regular tax remittances – except that there is precious little stability and loyalty to go round.
Once virtually all state institutions collapse, the hard-wiring and subconscious grammar of sectarian affiliation kicks in hard, and the sects construct defensive laagers. That is what happened in Lebanon, shattered into relatively homogeneous fragments across the country and inside Beirut, a city ghettoised in much the same way as Damascus and Baghdad. The larger Levantine canvas designed by European imperialists will probably not see any clean breaks, rather a rearticulation of national and, in some cases, cross-border space, along with population transfers. In Lebanon – despite 22 years of Israeli occupation ending in 2000 and 29 years of Syrian occupation ending in 2005 – the external borders have not moved a millimetre and no one has sought to redraw them. As the fire in Syria continues to melt borders that may not always be the case. When many threads in these interwoven societies are being pulled at the same time, it is hard to know whether the result will be an unravelling or just another tangle.
Beirut Attack Marks Militant Resurgence: Maria Abi-Habib, Wall Street Journal, Nov. 21, 2013 — As new details emerged about twin suicide bombings near the Iranian Embassy here, Lebanese officials described an outburst of violence that reveals the resurgence of al Qaeda-inspired groups in their country, a toxic byproduct of the Syrian war.
Attack in Beirut Through the Lens of Hezbollah TV: Robert Mackey & Liam Stack, New York Times, Nov. 21, 2013 — As our colleagues Hwaida Saad and Anne Barnard report from Beirut, the deadly bombings at the gate of the Iranian Embassy in the Lebanese capital on Tuesday were immediately interpreted there as a form of retaliation for Iran’s intervention in the civil war in neighboring Syria.
Dispatch From Syria: Can Rebels Learn to Govern?: World Affairs, Nov/Dec., 2013 — A sprawling tent city has sprouted up here amid the sand-flecked hills and ancient olive groves. Giant tarps twist up into the branches as rivulets of contaminated water run below. A tank watches from down the road, which leads to the nearby Turkish border.
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