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Jordan’s King Finds Fault With Everyone Concerned: David D. Kirkpatrick, New York Times, March 18, 2013—King Abdullah II of Jordan leads one of the smallest, poorest and most vulnerable Arab nations. But that does not stop him from looking down on many of those around him, including the leaders of Egypt, Turkey and Syria, as well as members of his own royal family, his secret police, his traditional tribal political base, his Islamist opponents and even United States diplomats.
The Assir Headache: Michael Young, Now Lebanon, Mar. 15, 2013—Is there a more troubling figure than Ahmad al-Assir? The Salafist sheikh is like a protester, who, merely touched by a policeman, will scream that he is being murdered, all to attract attention. For a year and a half Assir has engineered confrontations to rally to his side a Sunni community angry with Hezbollah and the Syrian regime.
Syria Warns Lebanon on Border Infiltrations: Jean Aziz, Al-Monitor, Mar. 18, 2013—While the Syrian Foreign Ministry sent an official letter to Beirut threatening to bomb Lebanese areas, the Land of Cedars will be without any senior officials in the coming week, as heads of its constitutional authorities travel outside the country. Meanwhile, sources have told Al-Monitor that the situation in the northern border area of Akkar has already begun to deteriorate significantly.
Syrian Daily: Jordan, Lebanon Playing With 'Fire': Daily Star, March 17, 2013—Lebanon and Jordan are playing with fire by allowing jihadists and weapons to pass across their borders into Syria, the Syrian government daily Al-Thawra warned on Sunday. "The fire of terrorism will consume not only Syria, but could spread to Lebanon and Jordan.
Ties With Netanyahu Very Strong, Says Abdullah: Jerusalem Post, Mar. 19, 2013
Monarch in the Middle: Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic, Mar. 18, 2013
Syrian Warplanes Strike Lebanese Territory: Patrick J. McDonnell , Los Angeles Times, Mar. 18, 2013
38 Hizbullah Fighters Killed in Syria Buried Secretly in Lebanon: Ya Libnan, Mar. 18, 2013
David D. Kirkpatrick
New York Times, March 18, 2013
King Abdullah II of Jordan leads one of the smallest, poorest and most vulnerable Arab nations. But that does not stop him from looking down on many of those around him, including the leaders of Egypt, Turkey and Syria, as well as members of his own royal family, his secret police, his traditional tribal political base, his Islamist opponents and even United States diplomats.
President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt has “no depth,” King Abdullah said in an interview with the American journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, to be published this week in The Atlantic magazine. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey is an authoritarian who views democracy as a “bus ride,” as in, “Once I get to my stop, I am getting off,” the king said.
And he said President Bashar al-Assad of Syria is so provincial that at a social dinner he once asked the monarchs of Jordan and Morocco to explain jet lag. “He never heard of jet lag,” King Abdullah said, according to an advance copy of the article.
The king’s conversations with Mr. Goldberg, an influential writer on the Middle East and an acquaintance of more than a decade, offer a rare view of the contradictory mind-set of Washington’s closest ally in the Arab world as he struggles to master the upheaval of the Arab Spring revolts. Seldom has an Arab autocrat spoken so candidly in public.
King Abdullah appears humbled and even fatigued by the many challenges he failed to foresee when he inherited the throne 14 years ago, describing himself before coronation as a “Forrest Gump” in the background of his father’s long reign. In contrast to his father, King Hussein, King Abdullah promises to move Jordan closer to a British-style constitutional monarchy, and thus to stay ahead of the Arab Spring wave. But he insists that only he can lead the transition to democracy, in part to ensure that democracy will not deliver power to his Islamist opponents.
The era of Arab monarchies is passing, King Abdullah said. “Where are monarchies in 50 years?” he asked. But even his own family, with 11 siblings and half-siblings, does not yet understand the lessons of the Arab Spring for dynasties like theirs, he said, adding that the public will no longer tolerate egregious displays of excess or corruption.
“Members of my family don’t get it,” he said. “Look at some of my brothers. They believe that they’re princes, but my cousins are more princes than my brothers, and their in-laws are like — oh my God!” he continued. “I’m always having to stop members of my family from putting lights on their guard cars,” he said. “I arrest members of my family and take their cars away from them and cut off their fuel rations and make them stop at traffic lights.” Even his own sons should be punished if convicted of corruption, he insisted. “Everybody else is expendable in the royal family,” he said. “That is the reality of the Arab Spring that hit me.”
He blamed his own government’s secret police for blocking his efforts at political reform. For example, he charged that the secret police had conspired with conservatives in the political elite to block his attempts to open up more representation in Parliament to Palestinians, who make up more than half of Jordan’s population.
“Institutions I had trusted were just not on board,” he said, naming as an example the mukhabarat, or secret police. He said he had not realized at first how deeply “conservative elements” had become “embedded in certain institutions” like the mukhabarat. “Two steps forward, one step back,” he added. Stopping the Islamists from winning power was now “our major fight” across the region, he said. He repeatedly mocked the Muslim Brotherhood, the pan-Arab Islamist movement behind the largest opposition party in the Jordanian Parliament and Mr. Morsi’s governing party in Egypt, calling it “a Masonic cult” and “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” And he accused American diplomats of naïveté about their intentions.
“When you go to the State Department and talk about this, they’re like, ‘This is just the liberals talking, this is the monarch saying that the Muslim Brotherhood is deep-rooted and sinister,’ ” King Abdullah said. His job, he said, is to dissuade Westerners from the view that “the only way you can have democracy is through the Muslim Brotherhood.”
The king was also frankly dismissive of the tribal leaders from the East Bank of the Jordan River who have traditionally formed his family’s base of support. “The old dinosaurs,” he called a group of East Bank tribal leaders, including a former prime minister, before a meeting with them in the town of Karak. “It’s all about, ‘I’ll vote for this guy because I am in his tribe,’ ” the king said of their political program.
Alarmed at the violence in neighboring Syria, King Abdullah said he had offered asylum and protection to the family of President Assad. “They said, ‘Thank you very much, but why don’t you worry about your country more than you worry about us?’ The monarchy is going to change,” the king vowed. His son will preside over “a Western-style democracy with a constitutional monarchy,” the king said, and not “the position of Bashar today.”
Now Lebanese, Mar. 15, 2013
Is there a more troubling figure than Ahmad al-Assir? The Salafist sheikh is like a protester, who, merely touched by a policeman, will scream that he is being murdered, all to attract attention. For a year and a half Assir has engineered confrontations to rally to his side a Sunni community angry with Hezbollah and the Syrian regime.
It is a testament to the disarray in the community – thanks largely to the two-year vacuum left by the head of the Future Movement, Saad Hariri – that there are Sunnis pinning their hopes on a sectarian demagogue. In that sense, Assir is not so different than Hezbollah, even if the party’s ability to control its followers is more reassuring.
Assir’s latest crusade is against the Lebanese Army, which the sheikh has accused of surrounding the Bilal bin Rabah mosque that he controls in Abra. Much can be said of the army, but Assir’s repeated street demonstrations against Hezbollah and the Shiites in Sidon have hardly endeared him to an institution committed to maintaining civil peace. Assir has put his fingers in the wound of confessional relations, and many now fear a perilous deterioration in Sunni-Shiite relations.
The problem is that Assir raises what many consider real problems. When he says that Hezbollah is placing its men in apartments around his mosque, he only plays up to a long-standing perception that the party uses property politics to advance its agenda.
Already, quarters around the southern suburbs that once had a Christian majority now have a Shiite majority thanks to Hezbollah’s purported efforts to build buildings and settle families there. In the Beqaa, there have been accusations that Hezbollah militants have rented apartments in Shtaura and its environs, to be able to link the Shiite-majority southern region of the plain with the northern region, if Sunnis ever block the central region in a potential conflict.
Are the accusations true? Maybe yes, maybe no, but few Sunnis are willing to give Hezbollah the benefit of the doubt because of the party’s actions in the past eight years. Hezbollah members stand accused of participating in the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, and there has been considerable suspicion as to the party’s role in subsequent killings. In May 2008, Hezbollah militants overran west Beirut and humiliated the Sunnis. And in early 2011, the party precipitated the ouster of Hariri, the principal Sunni representative, and brought in Najib Miqati. All this was against the will of the Sunni community.
The results created dry grassland for Assir’s flames. And yet his provocations have targeted not only Shiites. His decision to take a busload of followers to Faraya on the feast of the birth of the Prophet was equally contentious. Assir is entitled to go anywhere he wants in Lebanese, but he knew well that the presence of long-bearded Salafists in the Christian heartland would spark a counter-reaction (no less so than would Samir Geagea’s taking a busload of Lebanese Forces members to Abra). Assir also knew this counter-reaction would be led by Michel Aoun’s partisans. He manufactured a stand-off that he won (thanks to the army he is now attacking), and pranced triumphantly in the snow, proving that he was not a man who could be intimidated.
The big question is who is financing Assir? Some have suggested that he has Qatari funding, which the sheikh has denied. Unfortunately, denials don’t mean much in cases like this one, where funders will insist on anonymity. Wherever Assir gets his money from, and Salafists tend to look toward the Gulf for financial assistance, those helping the sheikh are only ensuring that Lebanese becomes more polarized than ever, with possibly disastrous consequences.
Yet the sheikh has more than just bluster and money; he also benefits from the presence in Sidon of the Palestinian camp at Ain al-Hilweh, where Salafist groups are strong. If Hezbollah were to enter into an armed confrontation with Assir, it would have to factor these Salafists into its plans as well. The party has no desire to be dragged into a fight with armed Palestinians on the main road to the south.
Ultimately, what is Assir’s program? He does not enjoy unanimous support, even in Sidon, and no matter how deep Sunni anger with Hezbollah and revulsion with Bashar al-Assad’s regime, his brinkmanship is alarming to those who fear a mad drive toward sectarian warfare. While Lebanese’s Salafists are less influential than many believe, it does not take much to spark a conflict. And once that happens, it is easy for the situation to spiral out of control.
Some will argue that Assir and Hezbollah are mirror images of each other. Therefore why blame one side and not the other? Hezbollah’s many errors in recent years have, more than anything else, pushed Lebanese to the edge of the abyss. Yet Assir is dangerous in a different way. He is still in the ascendant in a community where the political leadership has left a void. That is why Assir is far more likely to be reckless, and to drag Lebanese down with him, a victim of his hubris.
Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Lebanese.
Al-Monitor, Mar. 18, 2013
While the Syrian Foreign Ministry sent an official letter to Beirut threatening to bomb Lebanese areas, the Land of Cedars will be without any senior officials in the coming week, as heads of its constitutional authorities travel outside the country. Meanwhile, sources have told Al-Monitor that the situation in the northern border area of Akkar has already begun to deteriorate significantly.
On March 14, the Lebanese Foreign Ministry received an official letter from its Syrian counterpart, the first of its kind since the Syrian civil war began. It appeared to be more than a message of blame and accusation, while less than a formal warning or Syrian threat against Lebanese. The letter stated that "during the last 36 hours, large numbers of armed terrorist elements infiltrated from Lebanese into Syria.” It continued, "Syrian forces clashed with them within Syrian territory, and the clashes are ongoing.” The letter noted that "the Armed Arab Forces (the Syrian army) are still exercising self-restraint by not [targeting] the armed gangs inside Lebanese territories to prevent them from crossing into Syria, but this will not continue indefinitely."
The letter added that "Syria expects Lebanese not to allow those [elements] to use the border as a passageway because they are targeting the security of the Syrian people, violating Syrian sovereignty, and exploiting the good brotherly relations between the two countries." However, the message clearly mentioned that the Syrian army may be forced to resort to "bombing the gathering places of the armed gangs in Lebanese in the event of continued cross-border infiltrations."
Beirut tried to give the impression that it is dealing with the issue seriously, but that doesn’t appear to be sufficient. President Michel Suleiman has been on a 9-day African tour since early last week, accompanied by a large delegation of 93 people. Through a statement from the Ivory Coast, he tried to reassure Damascus that he is taking the new Syrian "message” seriously. Meanwhile, Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati and parliament speaker Nabih Berri are preparing to travel on march 17 to Rome to participate in the inauguration of the new pope. As a result, Beirut won't have any of its constitutional powers present, just as its northern border adjacent to the Syrian civil war appears to lack any official security or military presence.
In contrast to the official, stated Lebanese position, the situation on the ground seems to be more tense and worrying. In the north-eastern part of Lebanese, clashes have become a daily event on both sides of the border with Syria, particularly in the well-known Sunni-shiite-Alawite triangle.
But other developments — which apparently necessitated the writing of the official Syrian letter — took place in the past two days in the area extending from that triangle westwards, in the Lebanese area of Akkar, which is offset from the Syrian side by the Homs countryside to the east and Tartous province to the west. On the Lebanese side, this northern border strip extends along roughly 45 miles, and has a Sunni, Alawi and Christian cross-sectarian population.
These days, wherever there are Sunni or Alawite villages or towns along the Lebanese border, insurgents are present. Opponents of the Syrian regime are in Sunni towns like al-Abboudiya, Hikr janine, al-Qashlaq, Wadi al-Hawr, Noura, western Dabbabiya, and Fureidis, up east to the Bekaa valley and Wadi Khaled up to Hnaider and Qarha; meanwhile, supporters of the regime have taken to the upper villages, namely the village of Hikr al-Dahiri, which became the headquarters of Lebanese Alawite politician, former member of parliament Ali Eid, whose son Refaat Eid is leading the battle against Sunni jihadists in the northern capital city of Tripoli.
In the midst of the Sunni and Alawite villages, the Christian towns in Akkar seem to be caught in crossfire from both sides of the border. This sectarian-military classification on the ground is what forced the Lebanese army units to gradually withdraw from the tense areas, in the absence of any formal decision on the level of the Lebanese government to control the situation. That led to the remaining Lebanese army forces deploying in the Christian villages and towns. The main army barrack is located in the Christian village of Andaket in Akkar, in addition to another barrack in the Christian village of Chadra. There are other army posts in most Christian villages, such as east Dabbabiya, Manjaz, Kfar noun, Ramah and the town of Kobayat, which is the capital of Christian presence in the area. The second brigade of the Lebanese army is currently deployed in Akkar, supported by a battalion of the eighth brigade, and another commando regiment, an elite army unit.
Amid this tension, residents of the border area told al-monitor that since Syria addressed its official letter to Beirut, unusual military movements have been witnessed on the Syrian side. According to eyewitnesses, Syrian military experts dismantled minefields planted by the Syrian army along the border over a year ago to prevent smuggling or armed infiltrations. Other residents confirmed that Syrian military bulldozers were seen on the same line paving border tracks and opening roads. Both procedures suggest the possibility of the Syrian military launching limited military operations or incursions to hunt down its opponents inside Lebanese territories.
But diplomatic circles in Beirut rule out the possibility of such an escalation taking place, and instead expect clashes between armed Syrian parties within Lebanese itself, exactly as the situation is in Syria between Jabhat al-Nusra and the free Syrian army. These circles have revealed confidential information that a senior official in the Islamic group visited Damascus days ago, and held a series of meetings with senior Syrian officials there. According to the same diplomatic sources, this indicates that the cards of the Syrian armed jihadist forces in northern Lebanese could witness an unexpected reshuffling. In both cases, the possible scenarios on the Lebanese-Syrian border seem bleak. Lebanese officials openly talk about the presence of approximately one million displaced Syrians in Lebanese, which make up about a quarter of its population. They represent a human tragedy, and a social, economic and security burden whose implications are unpredictable.
Jean Aziz is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Lebanese Pulse. He is a columnist at Al-Akhbar, a Lebanese newspaper, and the host of a weekly political talk show on OTV, a Lebanese TV station.
Daily Star, March 17, 2013
Lebanon and Jordan are playing with fire by allowing jihadists and weapons to pass across their borders into Syria, the Syrian government daily Al-Thawra warned on Sunday. "The fire of terrorism will consume not only Syria, but could spread to Lebanon and Jordan, particularly if these two countries intervene in the situation in Syria, ignoring the flow of armed men and weapons from their territory, or by participating directly in the conspiracy against Syria," the newspaper said. "Jordan has opened its borders in recent days (allowing) passage of jihadists… whereas before it was satisfied with just facilitating the movement of elements trained on its territory by US intelligence," it added. "As for Lebanon, it is closing its eyes to the trafficking of weapons to Syria, led by elements that are not part of the government."
On Friday, a security source in Damascus criticized Jordan, saying the kingdom has "opened its borders and is allowing to cross over (into Syria) jihadists and Croatian weapons bought by Saudi Arabia. This can only intensify the conflict and cause more casualties," the source told AFP in Beirut on condition of anonymity.
"There's been a change of attitude because up until now, Jordan had imposed strict controls on its border to prevent the passage of terrorists and weapons," said the source, blaming "pressure by countries that are hostile to Syria" for the change.
And on Thursday, Syria's foreign ministry warned that it would retaliate if Lebanon continued to allow "armed terrorist gangs" to infiltrate. "Syrian forces are showing restraint by not striking these gangs inside Lebanese territory to prevent them crossing into Syria, but this will not go on indefinitely," it said in a message to its Lebanese counterpart.
Beirut has officially pledged neutrality in the violence engulfing its neighbour, but has found itself increasingly embroiled in the civil war. Lebanon's opposition backs the revolt, which entered its third year on Friday, while Hezbollah and its allies stand by the Syrian regime. Violence has already spilled over into Lebanon on several occasions, causing fatalities, and on Thursday the UN Security Council expressed "grave concern" about cross-border attacks.
Ties With Netanyahu Very Strong, Says Abdullah: Jerusalem Post, Mar. 19, 2013—Jordanian King Abdullah in a series of exclusive interviews with American magazine The Atlantic said that his relationship with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is "very strong," and that their discussions "have really improved."
Monarch in the Middle: Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic, Mar. 18, 2013—As the Arab Spring swirls around him, can King Abdullah II, the most pro-American Arab leader in the Middle East, liberalize Jordan and modernize its economy, without losing his kingdom to Islamic fundamentalists? The stressful life of a king amidst chaos.
Syrian Warplanes Strike Lebanese Territory – Patrick J. McDonnell , Los Angeles Times, Mar. 18, 2013—Syrian warplanes bombed an area of Lebanon near the Bekaa Valley town of Arsal along the border with Syria on Monday. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, "This constitutes a significant escalation in the violations of Lebanese sovereignty that the Syrian regime has been guilty of."
38 Hizbullah Fighters Killed in Syria Buried Secretly in Lebanon: Ya Libnan, Mar. 18, 2013—Al-Joumhouria quoted Free Syrian Army media head Fahed al-Masri as saying that the bodies of 38 Hizbullah fighters who were killed inside Syrian have been sent to Lebanon to be buried secretly. "The corpses were transferred secretly to Lebanon and arrangements for the burial were being made after buying the silence of the deceased's relatives," the newspaper reported.
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