Posted by Matthew Barber on Tuesday, May 28th, 2013
We previously discussed the advent of Lebanese Sunni and Shi’ite fighters facing off on Syrian soil. Increasingly, this fight is moving home, as well. Just as the Syrian conflict has involved foreign fighters (jihadists from many countries fighting with Syrian rebels since 2011, and the growing participation more recently of Hezbollah troops fighting with the regime), outsiders are active in Lebanon as well, as al-Nusra’s involvement there grows. The clashes in Lebanon are largely along sectarian lines—sad but undeniable. A Lebanese friend wrote several days ago:
The situation in Tripoli is reaching a new level. The Alawites in Jabal Mohssen, who have been fighting with Sunni Bab el Tebeneh for the last few days, are now shelling all parts of the city and not just Bab el Tebeneh. I’ve been communicating with my family all day and none of them got any sleep last night, the shelling reached their neighborhood several times and there was several explosions throughout the night. Even Morning prayer was accompanied by shelling and gunfire. By all accounts, the last 24 hours were the worse the city have seen since the end of the civil war. Mosques were calling on people to run away. Both sides accuse each other of starting the fighting. Ashraf Rifi (Harriri crew), the former head of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces, issued a statement today saying that Tripoli is proud of its sons who are on the front and that Tebeneh is in a state of self defense. The 8 of march, pro-Syrian regime/Hezbollah block has always accused Rifi of supporting the fighters in Tebeneh and creating a battle front whenever Harriri felt some political pressure. The statement he issued today leaves no doubt that he had a role in keeping the Jabal Mohssen/Bab el Tebeneh front alive.People were expecting the army to broker a cease fire and take control at 6 am, but that didn’t happen and the fighting carried on. And now there’s reports that Salafi groups have issued a warning to the Lebanese army to leave all battle fronts because they want to enter Jabal Mohssen tonight. Facebook pages from Tebeneh, cheering the arrival of the Salafis, are now claiming that Jabhat al Nusra has arrived and reported that a group called “Katibat Ahfad Al Rassoul” are entering the battle for the first time tonight. I’ve heard of Ahfad Al Rassoul in Syria, this is the first mention of them in Tripoli. Mikati tried to organize a meeting with heads of the groups on the ground in Tebeneh to urge them to respect a ceasefire but the meeting didn’t happen. Everyone is expecting Tonight to be worse than yesterday.
Lebanese media is ignoring what’s happening in Tripoli and most acting like its not a big deal. It calmed down a bit in the last two day because the fighting was contained within Tebeneh and Jabal. The war lords in Tebnehe are supposedly meeting today to agree on putting an end to the fighting. There’s rumors circulating that one of their demands is the deportation of 600 Alawites from Jabal (as a condition to end fighting). But as things start to calm down in Tripoli, problems are arising elsewhere in the country. In Saida, there were clashes between the supports of Al Aseer (Salafi sheikh) and Hizbollah supporters. The army arrested the head of Saraya Al Moqawama, which is a non-Hezbollah Shiite “resistance” group created by Hezbollah to allow non-Hezbollah members to help. They arrested the leader because he was shooting at the mosque of Al Aseer.
But the biggest development happened this morning in the southern suburbs of Beirut (Hezbollah neighborhood) where three katyousha rockets were launched at Shi’a area. One fell in a car dealership and another one fell on a balcony but didn’t explode and the third missed its target and fell in a valley. This is the first time that the Shi’a area gets shelled since the civil war. A supposed FSA rep claimed FSA responsibility for the attack but the FSA later denied.
Heavy clashes batter north Lebanon’s Tripoli – Daily Star
Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli witnessed the worst night of clashes since fighting between supporters and opponents of President Bashar Assad in the city erupted over the weekend, amid fears the Lebanese Army might withdraw from the area.
According to observers, the shelling, which tapered off at 7 a.m. Wednesday morning, was marked by heavy use of mortar bombs and rocket-propelled grenades. In a one-hour period during the night, at least 47 mortar bombs rained on Lebanon’s second-largest city, forcing many residents to huddle in corners of their homes they felt could offer shelter.
Around 4:30 a.m., a 300-strong force of Salafist fighters from the mainly Sunni Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood, which backs the uprising in Syria, tried to launch an offensive against gunmen loyal to President Bashar Assad in the opposite area of Jabal Mohsen.
They were repelled by Lebanese soldiers, who opened fire with heavy machine guns. A few mortar rounds shattered the relative morning lull as a cautious calm prevailed over Tripoli in the afternoon hours.
Lebanese supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad fired heavy machine guns and lobbed mortar shells at each other Thursday in some of the worst fighting in the port city of Tripoli in years.
The battles raised the five-day death toll to 16 and fed fears of the Syrian civil war spreading to Lebanon and other neighboring countries.
The violence also added to the urgency to U.S.-Russian efforts to bring both sides of the Syrian conflict to a peace conference in Geneva. Members of the Syrian opposition began three day meetings in Istanbul to hash out a unified position on whether to attend, while maintaining that Assad’s departure from power should be the goals of the negotiations.
Lebanon has been on edge since the uprising in Syria began in March 2011. The country, which is still struggling to recover from its own 15-year civil war, is sharply divided along sectarian lines and into pro and anti-Assad camps. The overt involvement by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah Shiite militant group alongside Assad’s regime has sparked outrage among many Sunnis in Lebanon who identify with the overwhelmingly Sunni rebels fighting to topple Assad.
Deadly sectarian street fighting has erupted on several occasions, mostly in Tripoli, Lebanon’s largest city and a hotbed for Sunni Islamists. This week’s fighting there has been linked to a Syrian regime offensive against the rebel-held city of Qusair in western Syria that has included Hezbollah fighters supporting Syrian troops against the rebels.
… Five people were killed, pushing the overall death toll to 16 since fighting began Sunday, with 200 people wounded, a security official said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with military regulations.
“It was a frightful night that instilled terror in the heart of every resident of Tripoli,” said Shada Dabliz, a 40-year-old peace activist in the city. “Tripoli is part of Lebanon, where is the state? Why doesn’t the government do anything?”
Cabinet minister Faisal Karami said the fighting was among the worst in the city since Lebanon’s civil war that ended in 1990, according to comments reported by Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency.
Four rockets struck strongholds of the militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon on Sunday, highlighting fears of sectarian tensions in the country that seem to mirror the strife in the Syrian civil war. The first two struck a predominately Shiite Beirut suburb of Dahiye, Lebanon’s state news agency reported.
One of the rockets injured five people, including three Syrians, the National News Agency reported. The number of casualties from the second one was not immediately known.
Two more rockets pounded a residential area in the northern city of al-Hermel, also a Shiite neighborhood, causing property damage, NNA reported. Syrian rebels have shelled al-Hermel in the past, saying they are responding to military support of the Syrian regime by Hezbollah, which is a Shiite militia.
Three Lebanese Army soldiers were killed Tuesday in an attack on their checkpoint in the eastern border town of Arsal, security sources told The Daily Star.
The news agency said the rocket was fired from a location near the southern town of Marjayoun, about six miles north of the Israeli border. It was not immediately clear who fired the rocket or whether it caused any damage or casualties.
Despite the cheerleading and support of Western nations, the Syrian rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s military suffered a serious setback on Tuesday. The Syrian army killed the leader of the al-Qaeda-allied Nusra Front in the Syrian city of al-Qussair during all-out-combat between the Islamist-led rebels and government troops, according to an Israeli source.
According to Benjamin Weinstein, an expert on Islamist terrorist groups, the Nusra Front chief Abu Omar was killed along with a dozen subordinates. He was shot-to-death as the Syrian army continued to plow through the rebel defenses for the third consecutive day in order to achieve Assad’s quest to regain control that city which is located adjacent to Lebanon’s porous borders, al-Mayadeen TV said.
In Qusayr, the Gloves are Off – Syria Deeply
It looks like there are leftists in the Lebanese militias fighting along with the Syrian army, one of them is a sunni from Sayda:
صالح الصباغ ، الذي شيع مساء اليوم إلى مقبرة آل عسيران في صيدا بعد أن منعهم مسلحو أحمد الأسير من دفنه في مقبرة “صيدا الجديدة” باعتباره “سنيا يقاتل تحت راية حزب شيعي”! وكان على رأس مشيعي الصباغ المهندس أسامة سعد، رئيس التنظيم الشعبي الناصري وعدد من مسؤولي حزب الله في الجنوب.
when I asked one of my Lebanese friends how is that possible, he said that many Lebanese believe that if Assad falls and Syria is lost to Al-Qaida they will be next, another guy told me a number of stories about how Syrian rebel militias earned the animosity of many Lebanese, shia and sunni, after acting like thugs and thieves and bombing civilian areas in Lebanon at random.
The German foreign intelligence agency (Bundesnachrichtendienst, BND) has drastically revised its assessment of the situation in Syria, reveals Spiegel Online. While, on the strength of reports by high-ranking military deserters, they had heretofore predicted the rapid enfeeblement of Bashar al-Assad, today they announced his victory before the end of the year.
The BND believes that the Syrian Arab Army has succeeded in securing its supply lines and in cutting those of the “insurgents” (largely foreign jihadists, backed by NATO and the GCC). The retrieval of al-Qusayir presages that of the entire district of Homs and the collapse of the partition plans, with the possible exception of a Kurdish area.
David Kenner at Foreign Policy, however, questions this new narrative: Is Assad really winning?
After two years of crowing that the end of Bashar al-Assad was nigh, the official and popular perceptions in the United States and Europe of the Syrian president’s staying power have shifted dramatically. There’s a new narrative taking hold, fueled by both media reports and assessments by Western intelligence agencies — that the Assad regime is largely stable, and making significant gains against the rebels throughout the country.
Not so fast. While the regime has made progress on a few fronts, its actual territorial gains are so far rather minor. And in other parts of the country, it’s the rebels who are still on the offensive. The Syrian war isn’t turning into a regime rout — the stalemate is only deepening.
… The most active front where Assad is on the offensive is Qusayr, where rebel forces are defending the western city from a joint assault by Hezbollah and Syrian military forces. The battle has dragged on for six days, despite early regime claims of a quick victory, with Hezbollah suffering significant losses in the conflict. Given the balance of forces, Qusayr will likely eventually fall to Assad. But despite being regularly described in the press as “strategic” — much like every other contested town in Syria has been — it is not the only opposition hub for weapons flowing from Lebanon, and its strategic benefits went largely unremarked during the more than a year it was under the control of the opposition.
Elsewhere, Assad’s victories have largely consisted of preventing the rebels from making progress. He appears to have gained a stronger grip over the suburbs ringing Damascus, preventing the rebels from launching an offensive on the capital, and halted rebel gains in the south by capturing the southern town of Khirbet Ghazaleh.
Assad also has a numbers problem. As this valuable article from the Washington Post‘s Liz Sly makes clear, his gains have largely been achieved through mobilizing some 60,000 militiamen drawn primarily from the Alawite sect, to which Assad belongs. The short-term benefits of that strategy are obvious — but by increasing the sectarian nature of this struggle, Assad endangers his remaining Sunni support, which has been so vital to his family’s dynasty since his father seized power in 1970. By relying solely on minority groups — even with Hezbollah support — it is unclear how the Syrian regime has the manpower to reclaim the large swathes of territory it has lost in the north and the east.
None of this is to say that the old conventional wisdom — that Assad’s fall was just around the corner — was right all along. However, the narrative that the Syrian regime is making sweeping gains across the country is just as wrongheaded. What we are really witnessing is the beginning of a bloody conflict that, if the world does nothing to stop it, could continue for years on end.
A New Phase for the War on Terror
A number of experts and analysts have predicted the impending demise of al-Qaida. With territory controlled in Syria and other locations, as well as free reign in parts of north Africa due to the destabilization of Mali and Libya, the post-Arab Spring security environment has suggested that just the opposite is taking place. News reports this week have discussed al-Qaida successes (and the growth of territory under its control) in Yemen, North Africa, and Syria. Amidst these developments and the continued movement of the Syrian war toward a region-wide sectarian conflict, President Obama has begun shifting the way that the war on terror is formulated. From FP’s AfPak Daily Brief: “Obama announces shift in U.S. counterterrorism strategy”:
In a much-anticipated counterterrorism speech at Washington’s National Defense University on Thursday, President Obama declared that “America is at a crossroads” and sought to redefine and narrow the scope of the country’s war with al Qaeda and its affiliates (BBC, ET, NYT, Post). Parts of this realignment include curtailing the use of drones in countries with which the U.S. is not at war, recommitting to closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, and seeking new limits on the president’s wartime power. It also includes returning the CIA to a more traditional spy agency, which will require a significant culture and generational shift after more than a decade of counterterrorism work and targeted killing (NYT).
The “war on terror” was noted for being problematic from the beginning of its “declaration,” and over the years many have continued to discuss its problems. A “war” with no clearly defined enemy, accompanying attacks on civil liberties and habeas corpus, the escalation of foreign entanglements, the uncertain boundaries of the use of drones—such problems must be addressed whether al-Qaida waxes or wanes, and Obama’s effort to confront an offensive understood as a “war that never ends” is important.
It may turn out to be an irony, however, if Obama’s efforts to downgrade the campaign coincide with al-Qaida’s post-Arab Spring growth—the period of its most significant gains since September 11.
Four months after French troops cleared Islamist fighters from the desert towns of northern Mali, U.S., French and African governments see a worrying new trend: Many of the same militants are regrouping in neighboring countries. One new trouble spot, say officials from the U.S., France and Niger, is an expanse in southwest Libya that is roughly 1,000 miles from Mali, beyond the reach of French warplanes and in area that before now drew little U.S. notice.
The militants’ recent movements pose a growing danger to weak African states. Militants have launched a series of deadly terrorist attacks this past week, including one in a town in Niger where the U.S. plans to put a new drone base. The developments also spotlight the difficulty of combating al Qaeda in areas where governments don’t have the forces to control their vast borders.
But the West’s ability and willingness to respond is less clear-cut than ever. In a major policy speech Thursday, President Barack Obama raised the bar for U.S. lethal action against terrorist groups, saying the U.S. will strike only at those who pose an imminent threat to Americans, rather than at terrorists who threaten U.S. allies and interests.
“Some U.S. government officials clearly want to end the war on terrorism. But there is a big discrepancy between hope and evidence,” said Seth Jones, an al Qaeda specialist with the Rand Corp. who advised the military in Afghanistan. “Al Qaeda and its affiliated groups have increased their presence in North Africa and the broader Middle East. Like it or not, terrorists get a vote too.”
A top concern is Niger. …
Obama’s counter-terrorism speech may alarm Israeli policy makers – Haaretz – After 12 years in the trenches of the ‘war on terror’, the American president tells Israel the U.S. is pulling out, symbolically at least. And that he intends to pursue peace with the Palestinians.
Israeli intelligence experts, defense mavens and foreign policy gurus should be poring over President Barack Obama’s address to the National Defense University by now. Many of them, one can safely posit, won’t like what they’re reading, in the text and between the lines.
And it’s not only because Obama, contrary to conventional wisdom in Israel, included the Israeli-Palestinian conflict among “the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism from North Africa to South Asia.” Israelis have fought long and hard to counter the assertion that the conflict fuels or sustains Islamic extremism and the Arab Spring has only cemented their conviction.
But it will come as no surprise to most mavens that Obama, along with his vice president and secretaries of state and defense, is convinced that resolving Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians will go a long a way towards soothing Arab and Muslim resentment of, and enmity towards, the U.S. in particular and the West in general.
Rather it is Obama’s declaration of intent to bring the American “war on terror” to an end that may be a source of greater concern for Israeli policy makers, on a philosophical level at least. Obama’s view that there is no single global jihadist campaign that is being waged against America contradicts the prevailing outlook of most Israelis, inside the government and out. His conception that terrorists from Boston to Beirut to Baghdad to Benghazi, even if they are jihadi-inspired, are separate entities, rather than manifestations or even tentacles of a singular ideological central command, flies In the face of most Israelis’ view of the world. As it does for many U.S. Republicans.
“The battlefield is anywhere the enemy chooses to make it,” Senator Lindsey Graham said in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last week. That is the way most Israelis would see it. But for Obama, the enemy was clearly defined and the battlefield was distinctly limited from the outset to Afghanistan, Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen and other countries in which “al-Qaeda and its associates” flourished. And the war on those specific battlefields, according to Obama, is about to be won.
But it was only last week that in the same Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Congress’ post 9/11 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) that Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Sheehan was asked how long he thinks the bill would need to stay in force.
“For at least 10-20 years”, he said, “Until al-Qaida has been consigned to the ash heap of history.”
A short few days later – in statements that his critics will surely associate with Bush’s infamous May 1, 2003 “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq declaration – Obama asserted that al-Qaeda is already “a shell of its former self” and “on a path to defeat.” And that he was willing to start talks with Congress now – and not in 10-20 years – about repealing the AUMF.
This is not simply a matter of U.S. constitutional law, but one of basic weltanschauung. For Israelis, the “war on terror” is the one declared by George Bush on September 20, 2001, in which he said that “Our war on terror begins with al-Qaida, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.” That is the kind of war, possibly without end, that Israelis believe should be waged, with the U.S. in front and in command. But that is the kind of campaign that Obama told his listeners the U.S. cannot afford to wage very much longer.
Israelis are less interested in the intricacies of the authorization needed to approve targeted drone assassinations or in the pros and cons of closing down Guantanamo. For the past 12 years, Israel and the U.S. have been united by a common enemy and a common purpose. They have served in the trenches together, on the same battlefield. That’s not going to end in practice, of course, but in formal and symbolic terms, at least, Obama has put Israel and the rest of the world on notice that the US was pulling out. …
The Economist interviews al-Nusra fighters (not official representatives of Nusra)
The interviewee is a young fighter from Jabhat al-Nusra, an extremist Sunni group in Syria affiliated with al-Qaeda in Iraq. A former teacher and then tiler, he is dressed in well-ironed black trousers, a white shirt and a black turban. A gun rests on his lap. He is accompanied by an older man, who appears to be judging him on his answers. Both are Syrian and ask not to be named because they do not have permission to speak to the press.
How has Jabhat al-Nusra become so powerful?
The reason is the weakening of the other groups. Jabhat al-Nusra gets the advantage because of our ideology. We are not just rebels; we are doing something we believe in. We are not just fighting against tyranny; Bashar Assad is only part of our fight. The other groups are only a reaction to the regime, whereas we are fighting for a vision.
What is that vision?
We are fighting to apply what Allah said to the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. We are fighting so people don’t look to other people but only to Allah. We don’t believe in complete freedom: it is restricted by Allah’s laws. Allah created us and he knows what is best for us.
What future do you see for Syria—or do you even see a Syria in the future?
We want the future that Islam commands. Not a country with borders but an umma [worldwide Islamic community of believers] of all the Muslim people. All Muslims should be united.
Syria has long been known for its sectarian diversity. How do you view the other sects?
The other sects are protected by the Islamic state. Muhammad, peace be upon him, had a Jewish neighbour, for example, and he was always good to him. But the power and authority must be with the believers [Sunnis], not the unbelievers.
What about other Sunnis who are more moderate than you?
We will apply sharia law to them.
What about Alawites?
Allah knows what will happen to them. There is a difference between the basic kuffar [infidels] and those who converted from Islam. If the latter, we must punish them. Alawites are included. Even Sunnis who want democracy are kuffar as are all Shia. It’s not about who is loyal and who isn’t to the regime; it’s about their religion. Sharia says there can be no punishment of the innocent and there must be punishment of the bad; that’s what we follow.
Did you lose or gain fighters following the announcement that you are linked to al-Qaeda in Iraq?
We’re with anything that represents real Islam, whether al-Qaeda or otherwise. If there is a better group, we’ll go with them instead. The effect of the announcement is that now we know our friends and our enemies. The good people will come to our side and the bad people will leave.
Many, maybe most, Syrians do not share your views. Do you care?
It would be great if the Syrians were with us but the kuffar are not important. Abraham and Sarah were facing all the infidels, for example, but they were doing the right thing. The number with us doesn’t matter.
Which other rebel groups do you see as acceptable? Ahrar al-Sham, another Salafist group, criticised your links to al-Qaeda.
I think only 5% of the battalions are against the Islamic vision. Ahrar al-Sham are a mixture of Islamists and people who like Allah so we are not sure about their vision. We are very clear as the Prophet, peace be upon him, made it very clear to us. Other groups have good beliefs but we are the only committed ones.
Will the differences lead to clashes, as have happened in some places? And how would you react if Western powers decide to arm other rebel groups?
If the arms reach people who will fight Assad and Hizbullah that’s okay. If they use them against us, then that’s a problem. We’ll avoid fighting [other groups] if we can. The West wants to ruin Syria.
How hard is it to become a member of Jabhat al-Nusra?
We examine those who want to join. First you must be loyal to the idea of Jabhat al-Nusra. Second, you must get a recommendation [from someone in the organisation]. Third, you go to a camp to be educated and practice, and take the oath of loyalty to the emir [the group’s leader].
Do you plan to carry out operations against the West in the future?
There is no permanent friendship and no permanent enemy. We’ll do whatever is in the interest of Muslims. The first duty on us is to fight the kuffar among us here in the occupied Muslim lands. The next duty will be decided later.
Do you have contact with the Syrian regime?
If it is in the interest of the Muslims, such as for gas or water, then we have no problem. These matters are in the hands of the emir.
Your presence helps the regime which has long tried to portray the opposition as extremist. What do you think about that?
The regime maybe benefits but in the end we’ll show all humans, Syrian and otherwise, the way, and true Islam.
What are your views of women?
The woman in Islam has a special role. She is respected as a wife, a sister, a mother, a daughter. She is a jewel we should preserve and look after. In the West they gave women freedom but they use them and don’t respect them. The woman is to use in adverts. We don’t have an issue with the woman working according to her mind and body. But not jobs that humiliate. Jewellery is okay on women, but not on men, and not too much. Make up should be just for your husband. You can wear coloured clothes and show your face. [The older man disagrees, saying women should cover their face and hands.]
Shouldn’t men also cover up to avoid women looking at other people’s husbands?
Our women ask the same question. Some men can’t control themselves and the woman is the source. It’s easier to prevent abuse. The men’s role is to go out and work. Man’s brain is bigger than the woman’s—that’s scientifically proven. Men’s brains have different areas for speaking and thinking, but women’s don’t which is why women they say what they think.
What if your interpretation of the Koran is wrong?
There are two types of verse. Firstly ones that are stable and unchanging, such as head-covering. Secondly ones on which people can differ, such as the rule demanding ablution after touching a woman. Does that mean touching her skin or intercourse? Opinions can differ.
Do you consider any Islamists too radical, like the Taliban, for example?
There are people committed to Islam and then those far from it. No one committed is too radical. We haven’t met anyone from the Taliban but they seem good Muslims because they defended their religion and the occupation, they kicked out the enemy and applied sharia.
Did you study religion?
I was poor but I read the Bible, and lots of Jewish and Islamic books. My head and heart told me to accept the Koran and the Sunna [accompanying religious texts]. Islam is different because it has a complete view of life, society, politics, economics—it is a complete system.
We hear there is a split inside Jabhat al-Nusra about your links to al-Qaeda. Do you disagree about that or other matters?
There are small differences, but when we give loyalty, we obey.