The CIA and Syrian intelligence are upping the ante in Lebanon. These two stories from the Daily Telegraph are revealing.
CIA gets the go-ahead to take on Hizbollah
By Toby Harnden, US Editor
Last Updated: 1:47am GMT 10/01/2007
The Central Intelligence Agency has been authorised to take covert action against Hizbollah as part of a secret plan by President George W. Bush to help the Lebanese government prevent the spread of Iranian influence. Senators and congressmen have been briefed on the classified "non-lethal presidential finding" that allows the CIA to provide financial and logistical support to the prime minister, Fouad Siniora.
The finding was signed by Mr Bush before Christmas after discussions between his aides and Saudi Arabian officials. Details of its existence, known only to a small circle of White House officials, intelligence officials and members of Congress, have been passed to The Daily Telegraph.
It authorises the CIA and other US intelligence agencies to fund anti-Hizbollah groups in Lebanon and pay for activists who support the Siniora government. The secrecy of the finding means that US involvement in the activities is officially deniable.
The Bush administration hopes Mr Siniora's government, severely weakened after its war with Israel last year, will become a bulwark against the growing power of the Shia sect of Islam, championed by Iran and Syria, since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
Mr Bush's move is at the centre of a fresh drive by America, supported by the Sunni states of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt as well as Israel, to stop Iranian hegemony in the Middle East emerging from the collapse of Iraq.
The finding, drawn up at the White House by National Security Council (NSC) officials, is a sign of Mr Bush's growing alarm at the threat posed by Iran, which has infiltrated the Iraqi government and is training Shia insurgents as well as supplying them with roadside bombs.
A former US government official said: "Siniora's under siege there and we are always looking for ways to help allies. As Richard Armitage [a former deputy US secretary of state] said, Hizbollah is the A-team of terrorism and certainly Iran and Syria have not let up in their support of the group."
Prince Bandar bin-Sultan, the former Saudi Arabian ambassador to Washington, is understood to have been closely involved in the decision to prop up Mr Siniora's administration and the Israeli government, which views Iran as its chief enemy, has also been supportive.
"There's a feeling both in Jerusalem and in Riyadh that the anti-Sunni tilt in the region has gone too far," said an intelligence source. "By removing Saddam, we've shifted things in favour of the Shia and this is a counter-balancing exercise.
Addendum: (Evening 10/05/2007) Here is a bit of helpful background that casts doubt on the sources used by Con Coughlin, the author of the following article. I thank Peter H. for bringing it to my attention in the comment section. "The Press Complaints Commission have launched their third investigation of Daily Telegraph political editor, Con Coughlin, in as many months, after a number of high level complaints about his latest ariticle on Iran. The investigation is looking at an article by Mr Coughlin on 24 January relying on an unnamed “European defence official” alleging that North Korea is helping Iran prepare a nuclear weapons test and follows the recent publication of a report detailing a catalogue of innaccurate and misleading stories about Iran by. The report, put together by Campaign Iran and published last month, revealed that Mr Coughlin, the man who ‘broke the story’ of Iraq’s 45 minute WMD capacity, is behind sixteen articles containing unsubstantiated allegations against Iran over the past twelve months. The PCC will examine whether the stories, all based on unnamed or untraceable sources, are in breach of Clause 1 of their Code of Practice, requiring accuracy." The rest can be read here.
Siniora government's battle for survival
By Con Coughlin, 10/01/2007
The CIA's decision to back Lebanon's Siniora government in its attempts to beat a challenge by the radical Shia Muslim Hizbollah militia could not come at a more opportune time.
Lebanese security officials have disclosed that Hizbollah is receiving the active support of Syrian intelligence in its attempts to overthrow the democratically-elected Lebanese government.
Senior Syrian intelligence officials have held a series of meetings in Damascus with Hizbollah leaders and also with the renegade Lebanese Christian leader Michel Aoun, a former general in the Lebanese army.
Under the terms of the Lebanese constitution, only a Christian can run for president, and Aoun, who is pro-Syrian, has thrown his lot in with both Damascus and Hizbollah in an attempt to secure victory in the forthcoming presidential elections, which are due this summer.
The Syrians confirmed their support for Aoun at a meeting held in Damascus at the end of last year between Aasef Shawqat, the head of Syrian military intelligence, and Sheikh Naim Kassem, Hizbollah's deputy secretary-general.
The Syrians have promised to provide extensive funding for Aoun's election campaign and to put pressure on "floating members" of the Lebanese parliament to support their candidate.
The recent rapprochement between Aoun and Syria constitutes an enormous challenge to the Siniora government's battle for survival.
Syria is still smarting over the way it was forced to withdraw from Lebanon in 2005 after Syrian intelligence was implicated in the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri and is determined to use its Lebanese proxies as a means of restoring the status quo ante
Here is an AP followup on the refugee visa situation in Syria: Iraqi refugees protest Syria's alleged visa restrictions
"The Iraqis in Syria are the victims of deportation," one banner read. Another said "Going back for one month means death." He will is refusing to go back to Iraq.
"My son was kidnapped and I paid US$20,000 in ransom to secure his release," Saeed said. "My brother-in-law was killed three months ago and my house was totally destroyed. I have nothing there. … I don't want to return."
Ali Ibrahim, another Iraqi refugee, urged the Syrian government to allow Iraqi refugees to stay in Syria until "calm returns to Iraq."
Syria is denying there has been a major visa change. It insists it continues to welcome Iraqis. The substantial demand is that in order to move from a temporary visa to a renewable residence permit, Iraqis must show proof of residency and an apartment contract.
This photo of the demonstration was kindly provided to SC by John Wreford, a professional photographer working in Damascus. He can be reached at Tel: 00963 94 361 947. His wonderful site, with many beautiful photos of Syria and other Middle East countries is www.johnwreford.com
Here is another photo of Sryian girls from his site:
Here is a bedouin girl
Also don't miss the new report from Conflicts Forum. "After Condoleezza Rice recently called Hamas a "resistance movement" (January 18), the reaction from reporters was… No reaction!"