Friday, October 31, 2008

The Lives of Foreign Wives

NOWLebanon takes a frank, light-hearted look at the lives of foreign wives in Lebanon.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

IAEA to Request Probes Into Syrian Nuclear Program

In other news coming out of Syria:
Freshly evaluated soil and air samples from a Syrian site bombed by Israel on suspicion it was a covert nuclear reactor provide enough evidence to push ahead with a U.N probe, diplomats said Tuesday.

The findings are important after months of uncertainty about the status of the investigation by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Preliminary results regarding environmental samples collected from the site by an IAEA team and made public earlier this year were inconclusive, adding weight to Syrian assertions that no trips beyond the initial IAEA visit in June were necessary. But the diplomats told The Associated Press that the IAEA's final evaluation, completed a few days ago, has the agency convinced it needs to press on with its investigation...

..Damascus denies running a covert program. On Tuesday, Ambassador Mohammed Badi Khattab — his country's chief IAEA delegate — told the AP he was unaware that the evaluation had been completed and could not comment until his country was told of the findings.

Ibrahim Othman, Syria's nuclear chief, has said his country would wait for final environmental results before deciding how to respond to repeated IAEA requests for follow-up visits to the one in June, when the samples were collected. Khattab repeated that stance, saying "further developments will depend on us receiving the final result."

...Beyond wanting to revisit the site bombed nearly 14 months ago by Israel, IAEA experts also want to follow up on U.S, Israeli and other intelligence that North Korea was involved in building the alleged Syrian program.

As well, IAEA officials have been seeking permission to visit three other sites purportedly linked to the alleged reactor destroyed by the Israelis — although Syria has already said that those locations are off limits because they are in restricted military areas.

Syria fears the IAEA probe could lead to a massive investigation similar to the probe Iran has been subjected to for more than five years — and to related fallout. Iran is under three sets of U.N. sanctions because of its refusal to heed Security Council demands to curb its nuclear activities.

IAEA experts came back June 25 from a four-day visit carrying environmental samples from the Al Kibar site hit by Israel. But intelligence suggests that radioactive material had not yet been introduced into the alleged reactor before it was destroyed, so swipes taken in search of radioactive traces were unlikely to have been of use.

That left the inspectors looking for other components, including minute quantities of graphite, a cooling element in the type of North Korean prototype that was allegedly being built with help from Pyongyang. Such a reactor contains hundreds of tons of graphite, and any major explosion would have sent dust over the immediate area.

But — if the Syrians were interested in a cover-up — they would have scoured the region to bury, wash away and otherwise remove any such traces.
Meanwhile, DEBKAfile writes:
...DEBKAfile’s military sources reported exclusively on Oct. 4 that Syria had resumed its nuclear program at installations scattered across the country and that North Korean nuclear experts were back.

According to recent American reports, a Syrian military delegation visited Pyongyang to find out whether their arms deals and nuclear collaboration were at risk as a result of Kim Jong-il’s ill health...

...According to our sources, [Deputy IAEA Chief, Olin] Heinonen has demanded access to the west bank of the Euphrates River opposite the El Kibar site, where Syria is believed to have cleared the ground of the debris left by the Israeli bombardment.

He also wants to question named army officers, engineers and technicians alleged to have been engaged in the program. Heinonen submitted to the government in Damascus a list of Syrian officials with dates on which they are suspected of having met secretly with North Korean nuclear physicists. He has asked for clarifications on the subject of those encounters.

More on the US Raid

The LA Times brings us more details, corroborating the posts put up earlier, on the raid on Al-Qaeda members in Syria.
...Abu Ghadiyah, the chief of a Syrian smuggling network who was killed in the controversial operation Sunday, was "one of the most prominent, if not the most prominent, facilitators of foreign fighters going into Iraq for Al Qaeda," a senior U.S. official said...

...Two U.S. helicopters flew about five miles into Syria, he said, with one landing at a farm while the second provided cover. A villager told the Associated Press he saw at least two men taken into custody by U.S. forces and whisked away by helicopter. He spoke on condition of anonymity, saying he feared for his life.

U.S. officials did not say how many people died in the raid.

Abu Ghadiyah, an Iraqi native believed to be in his late 20s, has for several years been a key figure in the flow of foreign fighters and weapons into Iraq, American officials said.

"He comes from a family of smugglers," said the senior U.S. official. "He seems to have turned the family business toward the movement of terrorists, explosives, weapons, etc., into Iraq."...

...U.S. counter-terrorism experts described Abu Ghadiyah, who is from Anbar province in western Iraq, as the head of a successful terrorist financial network supporting Iraq's Sunni Arab-led insurgency and a close associate of Al Qaeda in Iraq leaders.

"He's the classic example of a terrorist facilitator and financier," said Matthew Levitt, who from 2005 to early 2007 helped oversee a U.S. government crackdown on Abu Ghadiyah's financial network while deputy assistant secretary for intelligence and analysis at the Treasury Department.

However, Abu Ghadiyah's death is unlikely to decimate the network because of its strong funding streams and because other members, including a brother, have been active, said Levitt, now with the Institute for Near East Policy, a Washington-based think tank.

The Treasury Department had previously imposed financial sanctions on Abu Ghadiyah and family members, saying they facilitated and controlled the flow of money, weapons, terrorists and other resources through Syria to Iraq.

The effectiveness of such financial enforcement actions has been questioned. The actions target militants and those providing financial or material support, freezing any known assets under U.S. jurisdiction and prohibiting U.S. firms and individuals from doing business with them.

U.S. officials said Abu Ghadiyah, a nickname for Badran Turki Hishan Mazidih, was appointed by former Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab Zarqawi to be the group's Syrian commander for logistics in 2004. After Zarqawi's death in 2006, Abu Ghadiyah began working for the new leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Ayyub Masri, according to U.S. officials.

Abu Ghadiyah provided and arranged false passports, weapons, guides, safe houses and allowances to foreign terrorists preparing to enter Iraq, Treasury officials said.

U.S. officials maintain that Syria has long functioned as a hub for terrorist financing in Iraq, coordinating the movement of recruits and money between cells in Europe and Ansar al Islam training camps in northern Iraq.

In Baghdad, the Shiite Muslim-led Iraqi government said it wanted good ties with Syria but that Damascus needed to do more to stop fighters from slipping across its borders.

Iraqi government spokesman Ali Dabbagh described the region targeted by the Americans as the "scene for many terrorist activities of the last few months," including the killing of 13 policemen in an Iraqi border village in Anbar province.
Meanwhile, Tony Badran catches one of the regime's media manipulators red-handed [again] and illustrates another case of hackism at its worst. Also check this editorial from the Washington Post:
..."Criminal and terrorist aggression," charged Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem. "The law of the jungle," bemoaned spokesman Jihad Makdissi at the Syrian Embassy in London. This from a regime whose most notable activities of the past few years have been the serial assassination of senior Lebanese politicians, including former prime minister Rafik Hariri; the continuous and illegal supplying of weapons to the Hezbollah militia for use against Israel and Lebanon's democratic government; the harboring in Damascus of senior leaders of Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups; and -- most relevant -- the sheltering of an al-Qaeda network that dispatches 90 percent of the foreign fighters who wage war against U.S. troops and the Iraqi government.

The logic of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad seems to be that his regime can sponsor murders, arms trafficking, infiltrations and suicide bombings in neighboring countries while expecting to be shielded from any retaliation in kind by the diplomatic scruples of democracies. For most of this decade that has been lamentably true: U.S. commanders and Iraqi officials have over and over again pointed to the infiltration of al-Qaeda militants through the Damascus airport and the land border with Iraq, and Syria's refusal to curtail it, without taking direct action. Yet in the past year Israel has intervened in Syria several times to defend its vital interests, including bombing a secret nuclear reactor. If Sunday's raid, which targeted a senior al-Qaeda operative, serves only to put Mr. Assad on notice that the United States, too, is no longer prepared to respect the sovereignty of a criminal regime, it will have been worthwhile.
For its part, the autocratic regime in Damascus said,"it was largely freezing high-level diplomatic engagement with the Bush administration for its remaining three months in office." The Wall Street Journal reports:
Syrian diplomats said that before the raid they had been considering inviting to Damascus the State Department's point man on the Middle East, Assistant Secretary of State David Welch, for talks aimed on furthering Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations, as well as efforts to stabilize Lebanon and Iraq.

"Obviously, we're not going to be inviting Welch to Syria now," said Ahmed Salkini, spokesman for the Syrian Embassy in Washington. "Any sovereign country that is attacked unprovoked has the right to respond."

More likely than not, the Syrian diplomat's estimation of a consideration surrounding the invitation of Welch - and the administration's subsequent acceptance of the invitation - is something of an exaggeration.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Video: May Chidiac Interviews Johnny Abdo

Head of Military Intelligence as the Lebanon's civil war came to an end, Johnny Abdo remains to this day a controversial figure. Following the end of his term he took up the ambassadorship to France, and following the end of that assignment he eventually came to be known for his close alignment with the late Rafic Hariri - appearing regularly on Lebanese television, from Paris, to provide [insider- and leak-enriched] analysis of ongoing security related developments in the country and the region.

Below is the first part of an interview conducted by May Chidia, who herself was the victim of a Syrian-cell assassination attempt that cost her an arm and a leg (literally).

For the complete interview see here:

Part 1
; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4; Part 5; Part 6; Part 7; Part 8; Part 9; Part 10

NOWLebanon also brings us a summary [in English] of the interview.

The Sunday War

Roula Khalaf, Middle East editor for the Financial Times, recounts the story of the thousands of Lebanese families that chose to place their faith in their country and return to their homeland following the end the country's fifteen year civil war, only to find themselves ensnared in the new age of darkness precipitated by Hizballah's assault on Beirut, the Mountain, and the Lebanese state.

The article is long, personal, and touching. It reflects the strained emotions of everyone that has sought to build for [and from] our country something better than it has been served throughout its bloody past, but who witnessed the slashing of that dream in May, 2008.

I urge everyone to read the article in full.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Press Freedom Index 2008

Lebanon ranked 2nd highest in press freedoms among Arab nations, being "out-freedomed" only by Kuwait. Overall, Lebanon ranked 66th in the world, up 14 places from last year's ranking. This according to the Reporters Without Borders NGO which this week came out with its annual Press Freedom Index.

The NGO attributed Lebanon's rise to a lull in the assassination campaign (courtesy of Syria) targeting a number of the country's journalists ... I guess the guys (and gals) at RWB must have missed Hizballah's little "promenade" through various media outlets throughout Beirut, along with the trail of fire and destruction left along that route.

Speaking of cracking down on the free press (in Beirut, as at home), Iran obtained the lowest rank for a country in the Middle East, coming in at 166 (out of 173); sister-Syria ranked 159th worldwide. Other notable Arab rankings inlcude the Palestinian Authority (163), Saudi Arabia (161), Libya (160), Iraq (158), Yemen (155), and the list goes on.

The top 3 Arab countries, were Kuwait (61), Lebanon (66), and the UAE (69).

Fueling the Lebanese Boom

Writing for the UK's Independent, Robert Fisk touches on Lebanon's banks and bank regulations, oil, and its army of ex-pats in his quest to find out what is fueling Lebanon's ongoing bloom amid the global financial meltdown:
...All over Beirut, it's the same, the skyline constantly transformed by housing projects and high-rise office blocks. Yup, that's right. In Lebanon, in a country whose name is still synonymous with war – and in a world where capitalism is enduring a collapse of biblical proportions – business is booming.

Now readers, I am not – I am absolutely not – advising you to invest in this little statelet, with its sectarian government and mass graves and squalid Palestinian refugee camps. I am not an economist ... But someone needs to explain to me how this little Middle Eastern cabbage patch is bouncing along so happily amid the cyclones ripping through the world's economy.

Beirut's Blombank has just boasted a record 34 per cent rise in profits in the first three quarters of this year. The chairman of Audi Saradar Bank, who happens to be minister for the displaced in the Lebanese government, says that Lebanon is expected to record its highest GDP growth in many years ... Well, it turns out the Audi bank did lose about $20m with Lehman Brothers but made a hair's-breadth escape from the Wachovia collapse because the maturity date on its $200m deposit investment fell on 3 October. In all, Lebanon's 58 banks made about $750m profit this year. And why does this money look so safe? Because three years ago, the Lebanese Central Bank forbade all commercial banks to go into derivatives. Not one Lebanese bank made any investments in US sub-prime mortgages. Commercial banks, in fact, are prohibited from making real estate investments anywhere outside Lebanon.

...Back in 1976, when Ghassan Tueni was minister of petroleum, most of the world's oil conglomerates showed interest to explore parcels of sea-bed off the coast between Batroun and the northern city of Tripoli. But the day Lebanon was to open offices for the bids in Tripoli, fighting broke out there between Syria and the Palestinians, embracing the very area where staff would be working. Then in 1980, Lebanese economist Marwan Iskander suggested to then President Elias Sarkis that the exploration bids should be opened again...

..."When I [Iskandar] made my suggestion, Sarkis turned to me and said: 'Look Marwan, the Lebanese are crazy without oil. If we get oil, they'll go out of their minds! Anyway, if we did find oil, the Syrians are not going to allow us to export it.'" Today, the Syrians have – politically – returned to Lebanon and the Siniora government is in no hurry to discover oil reserves under the Mediterranean.

But the Lebanese may have a commodity as wealthy as oil: it is the only country in the world that has 35-40 per cent of its population working abroad, and they are sending home about $7.5bn a year. Lebanon has also received $1.3bn of its $7.6bn Paris aid commitments – which will total $7.6bn after Lebanese government reforms. Not to be mentioned, by the way, is the estimated $1bn which the Hizbollah militia receives from Iran each year. So much for America's ability to "staunch the flow of money to terrorist organisations".

As for the public debt, no problem. At least $24bn of the $45.4bn is in foreign currency and $21bn in Lebanese currency. But 80 per cent of the foreign debt is held by Lebanese banks or individual Lebanese businessmen who have no interest in taking their own country into bankruptcy; they are quite happy to go on taking their massive interest payments. As for the internal debt, Siniora can print more money if anything goes wrong.

Inflation to Drop Says Central Bank Gov

The Dailystar reports:
Banque du Liban Governor Riad Salameh predicted Friday that inflation in Lebanon would fall by six percentage points in the coming few months due to the sharp drop in the price of oil...

...Three months ago, Salameh estimated the domestic inflation rate at between 13 percent and 14 percent, when oil was still over $100 a barrel. On Friday, the price of a barrel of oil fell to less than $63 despite a decision by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to slash output by 1.5 million barrels a day.

Retail prices for gasoline and fuel oil in Lebanon, which are set by the state, have fallen four times this month...

...Since 1994, the Central Bank has intervened to limit fluctuation of the local currency against the dollar. The Lebanese pound is still trading at an average of LL1,507 to the US dollar. Some economists had advised Salameh to set the pound at LL1,000 instead.

Salameh stressed that the Central Bank and the Finance Ministry had agreed to maintain the current rate, although he acknowledged that demand for the local currency grew considerably in the past few months...

...Nearly 74 percent of total bank deposits in Lebanon are in US dollars, but the Central Bank has said that many depositors have been shifting to the local currency following the credit crisis in the Unites States...

...He reminded reporters that interest rates on loans had fallen by between six and seven percentage points on foreign currencies and by between eight and nine points on the local currency in recent years.

Local interest rates fell sharply after the Paris II meeting in November 2002, when donor states injected $4.3 billion in soft loans and grants into the Lebanese market.

Salameh reiterated that the Central Bank has sufficient tools to help the government refinance the maturing bonds and Eurobonds in 2009.

"The maturing Eurobonds in foreign currencies is close to $3.6 billion. The high liquidity in the Lebanese banks will enable the government to meet all its dues next year," he said.

Salameh added that Lebanon managed to record a surplus of $2 billion in the balance of trade recently.

Along the Syrian-Iraqi Border...

Writing for Pajamas Media, Michael Yon highlights how Sunday's raid matches up with his experience alongside U.S. forces fighting foreign insurgents in Iraq:
...For years, tons of explosives and a long line of foreign terrorists have streamed across the Syrian border into Anbar Province and Nineveh Province in Iraq. I must have spent a total of about nine months in Nineveh, about eight of which were in the capital of Mosul, and another month in Anbar.

Foreign terrorists were caught or killed on a regular basis, and they all had the same story: they came from an alphabet soup of Arab countries — Algeria, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen, to name a handful. They had come through Syria. I remember the day the Libyan was captured in 2005: Iraqis were trying to force him to wear a suicide vest to attack police in Mosul. I remember the night, a raid that I did not go on, when the Tunisians were captured in 2005, resulting in hand-to-hand combat that did not go well for the Tunisians. The owner of the safe house was captured with a diary listing dates and effects for years of attacks; that diary actually matched up perfectly with SIGACT reports of the same incidents. The Tunisians were captured with all sorts of documentation, as I recall, that chronicled their long journey by all modes of transport to get through to Syria and across into Mosul...

...In 2007 and early 2008 when I was last there, explosives were coming in through Syria. In fact, the last combat mission I did in Iraq this year was with a Special Forces team that specifically was searching for weapons coming in through Syria.

...The insurgency in Mosul is the last big thorn left in Iraq’s paw. That we struck targets in Syria does not surprise me and I am not appalled. I am appalled that Syria allows these groups to use its territory as a base and conduit to destabilize Iraq. A Syrian government that allows these groups to penetrate Iraq’s borders and murder Iraqis and Americans doesn’t have much moral standing to complain about an incursion into its territory.

Still, now comes the political posturing. The Iraqi government has condemned the action and is claiming that they didn’t authorize the U.S. attack. Of course Syria is doing the same. That’s okay. This is one way we give the new Iraqi government cover to do what has to be done. We can take the blame; they have to coexist with their neighbors. So we are a convenient public bad guy for both sides. But there is little doubt that Iraqis are taking some comfort that the “bad guy” is not respecting a border that is violated repeatedly by Syria. Syria has played a dangerous game, with few consequences until yesterday. If Syria wants its border to be respected, it will have to respect the border with Iraq.

Hariri-Nasrallah Meeting

MP Saad Hariri meets Head of Hezbollah Patry Sayed Hassan Nassrallah. Monday, October 27, 2008 (Dalati & Nohra)

Monday, October 27, 2008

Details of US Raid

The Long War Journal reveals details on the Syrian raid released to it by a senior US intel officer:
The US military incursion into Syria was aimed at the senior leader of al Qaeda's extensive network that funnels foreign fighters, weapons, and cash from Syria into Iraq, a senior intelligence official told The Long War Journal.

US special operations hunter-killer teams entered Syria in an attempt to capture Abu Ghadiya, a senior al Qaeda leader who has been in charge of the Syrian network since 2005. US intelligence analysts identified Ghadiya as the leader of the Syrian network, The Washington Post reported in July. Ghadiya was identified as a “major target” by the US military in February 2008...

..US officials contacted by The Long War Journal would not comment if Ghadiya was killed or captured during the raid...

...Ghadiya, whose real name is Badran Turki Hishan al Mazidih, is an Iraqi from the northern city of Mosul. Ghadiya succeeded Suleiman Khalid Darwish, a Syrian national and lieutenant of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the former leader of al Qaeda in Iraq who was killed by US forces in June 2006. US forces killed Darwish in a raid in Al Qaim in June 2005...

...At the height of the Iraqi insurgency, an estimated 100 to 150 foreign fighters poured into Iraq from Syria each month. Operations in Anbar and Ninewa have pushed that number down to 20 infiltrators a month, according to the US military.

Wanted insurgent leaders, such as Mishan al Jabouri, openly live in Syria. Jabouri, a former member of the Iraqi parliament, fled to Syria after being charged with corruption for embezzling government funds and for supporting al Qaeda. From Syria Jabouri ran Al Zawraa, a satellite television statement that aired al Qaeda and Islamic Army of Iraq propaganda videos showing attacks against US and Iraqi forces...

...The US military learned a great deal about al Qaeda's network inside Syria after a key operative was killed in September of 2007. US forces killed Muthanna, the regional commander of al Qaeda's network in the Sinjar region...

...Al Qaeda established multiple networks of "Syrian Coordinators" that "work primarily with fighters from specific countries, and likely with specific Coordinators in fighters’ home countries," according to the study. The Syrian city of Dayr al Zawr serves as a vital logistical hub and a transit point for al Qaeda recruits and operatives heading to Iraq.

Lebanon's Military Wish List

[courtesy of the NYTimes]

Lebanon Outlines Military Needs

The NY Times brings us a special report on discussions within the US administration on responding to Lebanon's extensive military shortfalls, including the procuring of an air-defense network, a reconstitution of the Lebanese Army's tank fleet, and the setting up of a secure communications military communications network. An abridged version follows:
...At the gates of a military base just north of Beirut, groups of soldiers drive new American Humvees and trucks, and some tote gleaming new American rifles and grenade launchers.

The weapons are the leading edge of a new American commitment to resupply the military of this small but pivotal Middle Eastern country, which emerged three years ago from decades of Syrian domination.

The new wave of aid, the first major American military assistance to Lebanon since the 1980s, is meant to build an armed force that could help stabilize Lebanon’s fractured state, fight a rising terrorist threat and provide a legitimate alternative to the Shiite militant group Hezbollah. That organization, which controls southern Lebanon, has refused to disarm, arguing that it is the only force that can defend the country against Israel...

...Some officials within the Pentagon and State Department have expressed concern about extensive military aid to a country so recently free of Syrian control and in which Hezbollah, which has close Syrian and Iranian ties, has continued to gain political power. And that has been a main concern for Israel, which has been lobbying for a lower level of support to remove the possibility that American tanks and helicopters might one day be used against it...

...These doubts, and the contrast with the robust American military aid to Israel, have provoked some anger in Lebanon. A television comedy here this week depicted American envoys handing out socks and toy airplanes to Lebanese generals...

...“It was like a police force, but undertrained and underequipped,” said Elias Hanna, a retired Lebanese general. “Even the Special Forces are very young and inexperienced now, whereas Hezbollah has lots of experience.”

In fact, the army was deliberately kept weak by the country’s Syrian overseers, who did not want a strong alternative force. That was part of what allowed Hezbollah to grow into such a formidable power during the 1980s and 1990s, using advanced weaponry provided by Iran and Syria.

Still, officials at the State Department and the Pentagon say they are convinced that rebuilding Lebanon’s military is essential to peace efforts in the region.

Other nations are involved, including the United Arab Emirates, Germany, Belgium, Britain and Canada. There have even been rival offers of assistance from Russia, China and Iran. But so far the United States, which has long been the Lebanese military’s main source of outside support for weapons and training, says it will anchor the effort...

...American-driven audits have shown that almost nothing given to the army has ended up in Hezbollah’s hands...

...Lebanese commanders say they are anxious about the slow pace of American military support so far. Of the $410 million that has been committed since 2006, less than half has been delivered — mostly ammunition, communications equipment, Humvees, trucks, rifles, automatic grenade launchers and other light weapons, and spare parts, according to Lebanese and American military officials.

And it is heavier weapons that are most needed, Lebanese officials say. In particular, they want an air defense system, which would allow them to argue that they could completely replace Hezbollah as a warding force against Israel in the south...

...Mr. Straub, with the Pentagon, said the focus is still on identifying Lebanon’s exact military requirements and then finding the weapons to suit them. That means that although Lebanon has requested attack helicopters, for instance, it is not yet a question of approving a specific deal...

...Yet one State Department official said that conflicts in the administration are holding up any major deal, as some at the Pentagon and State Department are more eager to rebuild the Lebanon Armed Forces while others are reluctant to move too quickly, given Israel’s concerns...

...The Lebanese also want precision antitank missiles and a rebuilt fleet of tanks to replace their aging American and Soviet models. Specifically, they want surplus Vietnam-era M60 tanks that would be rebuilt with American parts and transferred to Lebanon from Jordan.
Also, see here. Reporting on the NY Times' piece, NOWLebanon noted the following:
On October 6, the inaugural US-Lebanon Joint Military Commission (JMC) was instigated by the Lebanese Defense Minister Elias al-Murr and US Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Mary Beth Long.

The JMC is intended to institutionalize the bilateral military relationship between the two countries, and it will provide an annual opportunity to commit to military cooperation goals and to review commitments made in the past year.

Participants in this year’s JMC discussed current and future military assistance to Lebanon, including the need for a broad range of military capabilities to confront terrorism.

Evaluating the Bush Legacy in the Middle East

As the Bush presidency winds down, Middle East Strategy at Harvard (MESH) brings us a series of posts analyzing the overall effects and effectiveness of that administration on the Middle East. Below are links to the posts four posts in the series, written by MESH's various contributors:

The Bush Legacy 1: Michael Young; Raymond Tanter; and Philip Carl Salzman.

The Bush Legacy 2: Michael Mandelbaum; Mark N. Katz; Michael Horowitz.

The Bush Legacy 3: Robert O. Freedman; Hillel Fradkin; Alan Dowty.

The Bush Legacy 4: Steven A. Cook; Mark T. Clark; Jon Alterman.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

U.S. Spec Ops Raid in Syria

USA Today reports:
U.S. military helicopters launched an extremely rare attack Sunday on Syrian territory close to the border with Iraq, killing eight people in a strike the government in Damascus condemned as "serious aggression."

A U.S. military official said the raid by special forces targeted the foreign fighter network that travels through Syria into Iraq...

...A Syrian government statement said the helicopters attacked the Sukkariyeh Farm near the town of Abu Kamal, five miles inside the Syrian border...

...A resident of the nearby village of Hwijeh said some of the helicopters landed and troops exited the aircraft and fired on a building. He said the aircraft flew along the Euphrates River into the area of farms and several brick factories...

...The area targeted is near the Iraqi border city of Qaim, which had been a major crossing point for fighters, weapons and money coming into Iraq to fuel the Sunni insurgency.

On Thursday, U.S. Maj. Gen. John Kelly said Iraq's western borders with Saudi Arabia and Jordan were fairly tight as a result of good policing by security forces in those countries but that Syria was a "different story."

"The Syrian side is, I guess, uncontrolled by their side," Kelly said. "We still have a certain level of foreign fighter movement."...

...The foreign fighters network sends militants from North Africa and elsewhere in the Middle East to Syria, where elements of the Syrian military are in league with al-Qaeda and loyalists of Saddam Hussein's Baath party, the U.S. military official said...

..."The one piece of the puzzle we have not been showing success on is the nexus in Syria," the official said...

...Ninety percent of the foreign fighters enter through Syria, according to U.S. intelligence....

...Foreign fighters toting cash have been al-Qaeda in Iraq's chief source of income. They contributed more than 70% of operating budgets in one sector in Iraq, according to documents captured in September 2007 on the Syrian border. Most of the fighters were conveyed through professional smuggling networks, according to the report.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Saturday Security Briefs

Lebanon's security services had a busy day this Saturday, below is a collection of articles detailing their activities.

Before taking a look at the articles and incidents highlighted below, I'd like the reader to note one important fact that has permeated the reinvigorated activities of Lebanon's security services over the past two or three weeks: The rejuvination took place the moment the former head of the country's intelligence services left the country [to take up an ambassadorship to the Vatican]. Chew on that as you read and ponder the following news (which comes in addition to the bust of a number of terror cells earlier this month).

Most significantly (potentially) is a report in Lebanon's Al Mustaqbal newspaper detailing the arrest of Syrian Colonel who confessed to being ordered to carry out a bombing, on behalf of Syrian Intelligence, in the capital, Beirut:
A Syrian colonel has reportedly told a Lebanese military tribunal that he was assigned to plant a bomb in Martyrs’ Square, which was to be detonated during the commemoration of the first anniversary of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination.

Al-Mustaqbal newspaper reported on Saturday that Colonel Firas Ghanem told the military tribunal that a Syrian intelligence officer, who was identified as George Salloum, asked him to plant the explosive in Martyrs’ Square.

Ghanem reportedly said he accepted the assignment so that he could leave Syria, although he did not intend to carry out the mission. He was arrested three days after leaving Damascus as he attempted to illegally enter Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley from Syria, accompanied by a Tunisian citizen identified as Monir Hilal.
The arrested Colonel's testimony is suspect, to say the least, and we should expect more details to come out ... whether those details will be valid or not will also remain to be seen.

In other news, security services continued extensive security raids in the Hizballah-controlled Bekaa valley today:
On the third day of the security campaign, the authorities reported the following results: 85 wanted persons arrested, 342 legal warrants applied, 929 traffic tickets organized, and 450 legal records and violations applied.
Also apprehended were three truckloads of marijuana:

The security forces’ command in Baalbek, in coordination with intelligence services, conducted a search of a farm on Saturday owned by a member of the al-Ismail family, where it captured three trucks loaded with marijuana that had been prepared in the Brital and Taybe villages.

Security forces also confiscated three manufacturing machines

The raids come after extensive media coverage of brazen drug and criminal organizations and activities in the Hizballah-controlled area. The group, for its part, announced that it would suspend its long-standing protection of criminal rackets and individuals throughout the time-frame it has allotted to the security services to carry out their raids [... thanks :)].

After detonating a small bomb found near a school in the southern city of Saida, Lebanese Army sappers responded to another bomb alert in the town of Jamhour. Fortunately for the residents of the town, the abandoned handbag that sparked the alert was found only to contain a toy rabbit.

Security services were also busy in the northern city of Tripoli:
In Tripoli, four people were arrested, including three Lebanese and one Syrian, for allegedly being members of a group that forged official documents and sold Lebanese-owned land without the owners’ knowledge or consent. The group’s activity took place in Tripoli, Koura, Donnieh, and other northern regions. A number of mayors were also investigated in an attempt to uncover how the group had access to fake identifications.
Finally, as I was preparing this post for publishing, news reports from Lebanon indicated that the Lebanese Army was responding to "a breakout of fighting" in Beirut's Tareek el Jdeedeh neighborhood. The neighborhood was the scene of heavy fighting in May as Hizballah and other Syrian-backed militias undertook a violent takeover of the capital. I guess the security services will have their hands full throughout the night as well.

Pres. Michel Suleiman: Montreal Speech

Hizballah in South America

The L.A. Times reports on Hizballah's South American drug smuggling operations and the revenue generated by the activity.
Culminating a two-year investigation, authorities arrested at least 36 suspects in recent days, including an accused Lebanese kingpin in Bogota, the Colombian capital. Chekry Harb, who used the alias "Taliban," acted as the hub of an unusual and alarming alliance between South American cocaine traffickers and Middle Eastern militants, Colombian investigators allege...

..On Oct. 13, Colombian police arrested Harb, who lived on a resident's visa in Bogota with his family, after learning that he had an Air France ticket to Syria for the next day and becoming concerned that he might flee. They also arrested the other accused boss, Ali Mohamad Rahim, and Harb's brother, Zacaria, both Lebanese immigrants who had been living in Bogota. Chekry Harb is in his late 50s and Rahim in his early 40s, officials said.

Colombian officials said the three are among 15 of the suspects who will be extradited to the United States.
These activities are by no means "news" to those who know the group and have been following its activities (although it is nice to see some validation once in a while). In fact, a mention of these activities - drug smuggling in South America; along with diamond smuggling in Africa, human smuggling into Europe, weapons smuggling into Lebanon and across the Middle East, and money laundering/smuggling the world over as a result of these operations - was made in the second post ever put up on this blog:
The dismantling of Hizballah is a complicated affair. Hizballah itself is a multilayered organization that bases its very existence on its ability to shroud a vast majority of its activities from the public eye while maintaining an intimite and powerful presence among its supporters in the activites it conducts in the open. Domestically Hizballah is a charitable organisation, a political party, an armed resistance force, and an islamic movement; on a regional level they provide training to other armed groups in the region ( e.g. Muqtada Sadr's boys and Hamas) and act as liberators vowing to liberate Al Qudz and free Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails; and finally on the international level they are smugglers of money, diamonds, weapons, drugs, and people.

Friday, October 24, 2008

WINEP: The View from the United States

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy presents a 3-part series examining the status quo along the Lebanese-Israeli border two years after the implementation of UNSC Resolution 1701.

Below is an abridged version of the third article in the series, written by Michael Singh, detailing the "view from the U.S.", and published on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Marine barracks bombing in Lebanon on October 23, 1983. [Also check the first and second articles.]

[Regular readers of this blog will find that a great majority of the positions and recommendations expressed in this article reflect views voiced here, and all across Lebanon, by those seeking to build a just, representative, and viable Lebanese state.]
Two years after the 2006 Israel-Hizballah war, it is tempting to view another conflict as inevitable ... There is, however, cause for hope -- Lebanon's pro-sovereignty leaders have proven courageous and resilient, and the international community has committed significant resources to the country's institutions.


...Almost from the start of the ... [July War] conflict, it was clear that the international effort to end it would have to address not only the fighting on the ground but also the dangerous dynamics that had allowed Hizballah to draw the region to the brink of a wider conflagration. The product of this effort was Resolution 1701, which delineated three principles -- no foreign forces, no weapons for nongovernmental militias, and no independent authority separate from the central government -- as vital to a lasting Lebanese peace. Underlying these principles was the recognition that while the flow of arms to terrorist groups like Hizballah is the most immediate threat to stability in Lebanon, the true key to long-term peace is an empowered and capable central government in Beirut.

Strengthening the Lebanese Government

The UN resolution's most basic objective, a ceasefire, was quickly achieved ... More difficult was dealing with the domestic ramifications of the conflict in Lebanon -- Hizballah was emboldened and ... Their ensuing struggle for power culminated in May 2008 in a bloody street battle that claimed sixty-five lives, eventually leading to Hizballah's temporary occupation of Beirut.

In the Doha Agreement that followed, Hizballah gained new political power, albeit at the cost of credibility lost in turning its weapons against its own people. The pro-sovereignty forces, on the other hand, made painful concessions to the opposition but in many respects stood their ground and even made gains by electing a president, forming a government, and promulgating a strong cabinet statement. The true test of their strength will be in how President Michel Suleiman and Prime Minister Fouad Siniora handle ongoing discussions of Hizballah's arms, and how the majority fares in the 2009 parliamentary elections.

The Challenge of Hizballah

The violence in May 2008 underscored one of the premises of Resolution 1701: that any gains made by the Lebanese government could easily be countered by Hizballah with massive military force. Resolution 1701 sought to constrain Hizballah's military capability by securing Lebanon's eastern border, thus limiting both the flow of arms and the ambitions of Iran and Syria...

...Arms smuggling and an emboldened Hizballah pose a threat to the region that is difficult to overstate. As a vanguard for Tehran, Hizballah frustrates progress on regional peace and stability and acts as a proxy through which Iran can operate without risking direct retaliation. This strategy holds true not only in the Levant, but also throughout the Middle East -- such as Hizballah's training of Iraqi Shiite militants -- and as far away as South America, where Hizballah agents engage in terrorist financing and other activities. Compounding the problem, the Iran-Syria arms pipeline supplies al-Qaeda-linked terrorist groups in Palestinian refugee camps, as well as other Syrian proxies in the region.

Next Steps

Two years after the summer 2006 war, the need for full and effective enforcement of Resolution 1701 remains urgent...

...In the short term, it is critical to stop the flow of arms to the militias that hold Lebanon hostage. To this end, any further European moves to revive EU-Syria relations should stipulate that Damascus cooperate in ending the flow of arms into Lebanon. The EU should also emulate the British government's recent designation of Hizballah as a terrorist organization. In addition, the international community and Lebanon's regional partners should take meaningful action to secure the Lebanese-Syrian border, or Siniora should charge UNIFIL with that mission under the authority provided him by Resolution 1701. Finally, measures to stop the arms before they arrive at the border should be examined in earnest.

The long-term challenge for Lebanon's allies will be to strengthen the Lebanese state by increasing military, diplomatic, and economic assistance to Beirut. The Lebanese government, in turn, can demonstrate its authority by continuing to address the country's security challenges and wresting control of the Lebanon-Israel relationship from Hizballah and Iran by taking up Israel's offer of bilateral talks. Hizballah and its allies may criticize such a move, but Suleiman could justify the talks by pointing to the peace deals and ongoing talks between Israel and its other neighbors.

For its part, Israel should recognize that effective implementation of Resolution 1701 requires strong Lebanese civic and security institutions. Israeli leaders should see the Lebanese government as a partner and refrain from actions that indirectly benefit those seeking to undermine it, such as Hizballah.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Hizballah Training North Lebanon Sunni Extremists

Surprise, surprise:
Security officials have arrested 21 followers of Islamic preacher Fat-hi Yakan in Beirut's southern suburb of Ouzai and released them to join a Hizbullah camp for military training, the daily an-Nahar reported on Thursday.
Syria's unmistakable role in sponsoring and "stimulating" Sunni extremists in northern Lebanon - along with Hizballah's role as a trainer of these, and other Syrian-sponsored groups - have been documented by analysts, journalists, bloggers, security experts and politicians. Just ask Tony Badran who has followed reports on extremists in the North diligently.

IMF Praises Lebanon

The following are excerpts from a recent article on IMF comments on Lebanon. The comments have been broken down into three categories:

Global Credit Crisis
The International Monetary Fund's (IMF) senior resident representative to Lebanon praised the country's central bank ... saying the banking sector had few direct links to the current financial crisis and that Lebanon would likely prove more resilient than other emerging markets.

"The central bank did an excellent job in not exposing [itself] to risky products," Edward H. Gardner said during a presentation at the InterContinental Phoenicia Hotel which was hosted by the Lebanese Dutch Business Association.

Gardner said Lebanese banks' higher-than-average liquidity and the central bank's leadership could spare the country from the larger effects of the economic crisis that has been ravaging the US, European, and Asian markets.

However, he also noted that if booming Gulf economies were hit hard by the current crisis, Lebanon could feel the indirect effects due to its heavy reliance on jobs, remittances and foreign direct investment from oil-rich Gulf states.
IMF Aid and Lebanon's Strengths
Lebanon received its first aid package from the IMF in 2007 after the devastating 2006 war with Israel. Up to that point, the IMF and Lebanon had a purely surveillance-based relationship.

The 2007 loan was not credit-based. It was classified as Emergency Post-Conflict Assistance, which places fewer restrictions and requirements on the receiving country.

The primary focus of the package was Lebanon's spiraling national debt. In 2006, debt represented 177 percent of Lebanon's GDP, the highest debt-to-GDP ratio in the world.

Despite this massive load, Gardner said, confidence in Lebanese markets remained surprisingly high. This confidence, he added, was based on five factors: internal financing from the central bank, large remittances, no history of bank defaults, banks' maintenance of large liquidity as a buffer to defaults, and a general perception that Lebanon was too important to fail.

These factors, Gardner pointed out, make Lebanon unique in the world financial market.
More Needs to be Done
The IMF loan was tied to qualitative and quantitative targets, like decreasing the government deficit, increasing internal reserves, a government audit of Electricite du Liban (EDL), and progress toward privatizing the telecommunications sector.

"The program was very successful from the IMF point of view," Gardner said, adding that this success led to a preliminary deal on a second drawing of emergency aid, announced last week, worth $40 million.

The advantages of the IMF involvement, he added, are the target frameworks that the body provides governments and the seal of confidence that IMF lending presents to other countries that might join in giving.

At the Paris III Conference in 2007, a collection of donor countries pledged $7.6 billion in grants and loans to Lebanon. But, by June 2008, the actual disbursement of the aid, which was tied to specific political and financial benchmarks, has amounted to only $900 million.

Aside from its debt, Gardner cited EDL's fiscal failures and the stalled efforts to privatize the domestic telecommunications market as abiding concerns. "Government support to EDL is 5 percent of GDP," the IMF representative added.

As for privatization, Gardner said that what remains important is that "privatization is ready to go when market conditions are right."

"Obviously," he added, "you don't want to privatize in a market where there is no credit."

Speaking with The Daily Star after his presentation, he restated the essential question facing Lebanon's economy: whether it can capitalize on its unique ability to withstand shocks and move in the "right direction," in particular, by decreasing debt.

Flooding in Beirut

Lebanese men try to salvage some of their belongings from their flooded home after heavy rain hit the capital Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2008 (AP Photo/Ahmad Omar).

Also, read here.

[images courtesy of Yahoo!News]

On Living-Room Marriages

From the Washington Post:
In a blog and now a top-selling book, both called, "I Wanna Get Married," Abdel Aal lifts the veil on the demure role young women are expected to play in these encounters -- which often bring on gawaaz al-salonat -- living-room marriages. Not so much arranged marriages as suggested ones, they involve a potential groom, nominated by family or friends, meeting a prospective bride and her family in their home over awkward rounds of tea...

...She began the blog in her early 20s. "There was a proposal from a groom to be. I decided to write about it, and seek the opinion of others," Abdel Aal recounted at a cafe on the edge of Mahalla...

...Her book is in its fourth printing in six months. Her writing -- in colloquial Arabic rather than the classical form usually used in publishing -- has struck a chord with many young Muslims. They write from Canada, Pakistan and Bangladesh to express support.

Palestinian Students Blocked From Studies

The Dailystar reports:
The acceptance letter that 28-year-old Hazem Hussein got for a business graduate program at a Californian university once brought joy. Now he does not know what to do with it. He has admission, and a visa to the US, but the Israelis will not let him leave.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Actually, Iran Really Isn't Very Tolerant

This one goes out to that bumbling buffoon, Michel Aoun, fresh from his return from his "supplication visit" to the clerics in Iran:
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday expressed concerns about possible human rights abuses in Iran and urged the country to do more to combat discrimination against women and minorities.

According to the report, one of the main victims of discrimination in Iran is the Baha'I community.

Baha'is say hundreds of their followers have been jailed and executed since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.

There have also been reports of "an increase in rights violations against women, university students, teachers, workers and other activist groups," Ban said in the report, which was issued to all 192 UN member states.

Regarding the place of women in Iranian society, the report said criminal and civil laws contained "discriminatory provisions that are in urgent need of reform." Ban also said that gender-based violence was "widespread" in Iran.
So here's to Hizballah's chief Christian ally (and Syria's newest - or is it oldest? - tool) and his claim, upon his return, of universal tolerance in that bastion of freedom and minority rights.

WINEP: The View from Lebanon

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy presents a 3-part series examining the status quo along the Lebanese-Israeli border two years after the implementation of UNSC Resolution 1701.

Below is an abridged version of the second article in the series, written by Nicholas Blanford, and detailing the "view from Lebanon".
Two years after the 2006 summer war, Hizballah and Israel continue to pay lip service to UN Security Council Resolution 1701 while focusing on preparations for the inevitable second round of conflict. Although Hizballah has not mounted a single border operation against Israel since the war, the Shiite organization has developed a new line of defense north of the Litani River and completed a massive, unprecedented recruitment, training, and rearmament drive.

Arms Smuggling

In September 2006, a month after the fighting ended, Hizballah's secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, claimed that "the resistance was able to rearm itself in a few days and is now stronger than it was on July 12," the first day of the war. By revealing the organization's renewed military strength, Nasrallah admitted tacitly that Hizballah was in breach of Resolution 1701. Paragraphs 14 and 15 of the resolution mandate the Lebanese government to secure its borders against arms smuggling and mandate other governments to prevent the sale or transfer of weapons, ammunition, equipment, and training to "entities or individuals" in Lebanon.

Although the Lebanese government has deployed about 8,000 Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) troops along the eastern border, Beirut is politically incapable of sealing off the frontier ... As such, a UN border assessment team reported in a August 2008 followup that the eastern "Green Border [the illegal crossings] remains as penetrable as it was during the mission of team one [in 2007]."

Buildup South of the Litani?

Hizballah's military preparations north of the Litani River and in the Bekaa Valley are well known. Vast tracts of land in this mountainous spine running north from the Litani to the lower reaches of the Barouk Mountains have been placed off-limits. The sound of explosions and machine gun fire has become commonplace in parts of the Bekaa Valley where Hizballah conducts its training.

What is less evident is the scale of Hizballah's military preparations near the southern border ... [where] Hizballah is reportedly carrying out clandestine military preparations ... In late March, an armored UNIFIL patrol attempted to stop a tractor trailer driving through the western border sector late at night, but two cars and five armed men blocked the road, allowing the truck and its unknown contents to escape. In May, UNIFIL personnel ... were attacked with stones and their passage blocked by cars when they encountered a group of men laying cables in the eastern sector of the UNIFIL area. The implication was that the cables were part of Hizballah's fiber-optic communications network...

...Civilian sources in southern Lebanon claim that Hizballah continues to provision some of its war bunkers, keeping them stockpiled and paying local residents to monitor them. The border district remains an important component of Hizballah's battle plan in a potential war with Israel, even though the organization has repositioned its front line north of the Litani. Hizballah operates discreetly near the border out of political expediency and to avoid embarrassing the LAF, which is responsible for the area's security.

Israeli Ire

Israel has complained repeatedly to the UN and UNIFIL about allegations of arms smuggling across the Lebanon-Syria border and objected that Hizballah is rebuilding its military infrastructure in southern Lebanon. UNIFIL, however, insists it has seen nothing to support the Israeli claims...

...Israel, however, would likely gain a more sympathetic ear from the UN if it were to desist from its own breaches of the resolution...

The UN's latest report on 1701 stated that UNIFIL had recorded an average of more than twenty [Israeli] violations per day in April and May, including seventy-two violations by unmanned aerial vehicles in one day alone.

In addition, despite repeated entreaties from the UN, Israel refuses to hand over the cluster bomb strike data from the 2006 war. That information would assist the effort to remove the remaining unexploded submunitions, which so far have caused over three hundred casualties.


Given what has transpired in Lebanon over the past two years -- both on the ground and in the air -- it would appear that Hizballah and Israel will continue to breach, and not honor, Resolution 1701. Preparing for the inevitable second round of conflict has taken priority -- for both parties -- over complying with the UN resolution.

WINEP: The View from Israel

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy presents a 3-part series examining the status quo along the Lebanese-Israeli border two years after the implementation of UNSC Resolution 1701.

Below is an abridged version of the first article in the series, written by Oded Eran, and detailing the "view from Israel". Read it for yourselves and decide, but for this blogger, the view from Israel continues to be one of misplaced confidence; unchecked, undeterred, and nonconstructive military chauvinism and aggression, and a failure, once again, for that state to seize the opportunity to place itself within the fabric of the international community of states and nations - which is exactly what Hizballah and other hardliners in the region want.
In a September 29 interview, outgoing Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert defended UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1701 ... by asserting that it had quieted Israel's northern border. Although the resolution ended the fighting, it did not end the conflict, and its failure to incorporate specific stipulations and mechanisms to disarm Hizballah makes future violence between the two sides inevitable.

Missed Opportunities

When the Security Council adopted Resolution 1701, the international community missed an opportunity to provide UNIFIL the legal sanction to extend its territorial responsibility and functional mandate. As a result, Hizballah has more than doubled its prewar arsenal of long- and short-range missiles and rockets by way of the porous Syrian-Lebanese border.

Furthermore, since Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, Hizballah has built a massive military infrastructure, both above and below ground. Among Israel's 2006 war objectives was the destruction of that infrastructure, yet whatever was destroyed during the war has been reconstructed and fortified in the past two years, regardless of UNSCR 1701 and the presence of UNIFIL and the Lebanese Army.

Hizballah Undeterred

Hizballah's buildup over the last two years accentuates Israel's desire to undermine the organization's position in Lebanon. Logic suggests this can only be achieved by a successful military operation followed by a clear diplomatic solution. Such an outcome would close the loopholes of UNSCR 1701 and force the Lebanese government and the international community to take concrete measures to implement UNSCR 1559, which calls for the disbanding and disarmament of all militias inside Lebanon.


Another war with Hizballah appears inevitable, and the Israeli military currently is making preparations to ensure that the next round is decisive. More importantly, however, is the diplomacy that would follow the conflagration. Not only is it important to secure a meaningful UN resolution, it is also critical that the international community implement that resolution.
Read Blacksmith commentary on the view from Lebanon and Israel at the height of the July War here.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

FT Interview: Mohammad Fneish

If you need any clear proof of Hizballah's lack of intent on recognizing the Lebanese state or ever laying down their weapons (and their mini-state) in favor of our dear republic, then read this interview in the Financial Times. An abridged version follows:
Mohammad Fneish, a Hizbollah leader and Labour minister in the Lebanese cabinet, spoke to Lionel Barber and Roula Khalaf earlier this month at his office in Beirut.

Q: Has Lebanon made significant progress on national reconciliation?

A: ...Since the events of May which reached the point of clashes on the streets and threatened to ignite civil war, the situation has returned back almost to normality which suggests that Lebanon does not want to be in a conflict where they have differences, they do not want their differences to lead to a violent confrontation.

In 2006 Israel tried to change the political scene in Lebanon by destroying Hizbollah and they did not succeed ... It’s not in the US’s interested that Lebanon turns into a conflict zone. This is what leads me to believe that we will not have a civil war and that the situation will remain contained.

Q: What about what happened in May?

A: I understand what you are saying, but still the weapons and show of force were not used to make internal changes ... Hizbollah acted when the other side tried to undermine the resistance. It had nothing to do with the balance of power in terms of the internal political situation. They threatened the resistance.

Suppose May had not happened. Would we have had a president by now? Would we have had a solution? This was the solution ... The alternative would have been that the situation continued to deteriorate ... no government, no president, no parliament.

Q: But are you saying that Hizbollah’s weapons will allow you to manage the peace?

A: If our priority is to reduce the Israeli threat from Lebanon, that obviously requires the internal front to be quiet ... We are keen also to have a national dialogue ... Even in the first round of national dialogue which started before the 2006 war, the subject of this discussion was never the weapons of Hizbollah, it was always national defence.

Q: What’s going to happen with the weapons? Will Hizbollah disarm?

A: You’re trying to reach the conclusion of the dialogue. We can’t say now what the outcome of the dialogue is going to be ... What is being asked of us is, if we have a bigger army will we be able to defend Lebanon? I don’t think so because it’s not a matter of numbers. You shouldn’t rush matters. The problem is not the weapons.

Q: But how can Lebanon survive if Hizbollah has its own mini-state?

A: The notion of a state does not really apply to Lebanon or to the whole Middle East ... You can’t try to apply notions of western political science in Lebanon. Is it sacred that the army is the only force that can carry weapons? If a society approves that you can have the official army and then you can have another popular force that works along side it, then what is the problem?

There is no such agreement at the moment and that’s why we need to have a dialogue.

Q: I would like to ask a hypothetical question about peace in the Middle East. If there was a comprehensive peace settlement, would Hizbollah lay down its weapons?

A: This would create a completely different situation for our region. What would happen then is that we would have to sit down as Lebanese and discuss how to adapt to it.

Q: What would Hizbollah’s strategy be?

A: Hizbollah has an ideology, a way of thinking.

Let’s say there is peace, a compromise. If there is a compromise, if the Arab world accepts this compromise, in political terms my role is to defend my country...

...Nasrallah has said that our role is to liberate the land and if you liberate the land we will be satisfied with a defensive strategy.

Q: How do you view the relationship between Syria and Lebanon?

A: Syria is now out of Lebanon. States do not necessarily exercise their influence through a physical presence ... they can have alliances.

Until the killing of [former prime minister] Rafiq Hariri the Syrians did intervene in Lebanon in a very direct way...

...Part of the American project was to get rid of the resistance and to turn Lebanon against Syria. You can’t compare the American interference in Lebanon with the Syrian role in Lebanon because since 2003 Syria has been in a defensive position.

Q: What is the situation in the northern town of Tripoli?

A: There is some truth to what Bashar al-Assad said about the north...

...The border between Syria and Lebanon is very long and it’s very easy to get in and out ... That’s why the Syrians have massed all these troops on the border ... Lebanon could become a base where these groups can cooperate. It requires such a security operation from the Syrians.
Related: FT Interview with PM Fouad Siniora.

FT Interview: Fouad Siniora

The following is an abridged version of PM Fouad Siniora's interview with the Financial Times. For the complete script of the interview, click here:
Fouad Siniora, Lebanon’s prime minister, spoke to Lionel Barber and Roula Khalaf earlier this month at his office in central Beirut

Q: How do you assess the progress of national reconciliation?

A: ...First of all the degree of tolerance has fallen significantly and some are resorting in one way or another to resolving their differences through the use of violence, which is entirely contrary to the very principle of accepting others’ opinions...

...Hizbollah did a great job in fighting the Israelis, until they liberated lands in the year 2000. That was the thing that one could really have arranged to find other ways, without really asking Hizbollah to disarm. We could have managed not to subject the country to an additional test and pressures and experiences because of additional invasions that may be made by the Israelis.

Up to the year 2006 we definitely considered Israel as an enemy – we still consider them the enemy – and we have to protect the country against the attacks, the invasions, the attempts that may be made to undermine the Lebanese state.

But we consider that Hizbollah’s act in kidnapping two Israel soldiers was a miscalculation because this had consequences. The Israelis did not succeed in defeating Lebanon – I’m being fairly objective. They did not have a victory, we did not have a victory. We managed to stop them from defeating us, but in the final analysis they ended up occupying part of the country and we had to resort to political means to push them back out of the country.

Q: One member of your government asked what is wrong with having a paramilitary force that is not part of the army.

A: This is something you might be able to have for a short period of time but it is not something that can be worked out for a long period of time, where you have areas that are beyond the control and the government and people who are allowed to do what they want without being subject to the rule of law.

Particularly in a society that is highly diverse and in which there is a certain group that monopolises this aspect of fighting the Israelis, this puts all the other groups outside and this in a diverse society makes the situation much more difficult.

You see, building a state is something that can not wait and it is unacceptable not to have a state.

Q: Is there anything real in the reconciliation? Or is it just lip service?

A: I agreed to the principle of having a reconciliation government, this is something that happens in many democracies, but ultimately, after the elections, I think that whoever gets the majority has to rule. In other words, if those who really believe in that opinion, if they win, they should take the lead.

Q: What if the opposition wins?

A: They should really take the responsibility and take the lead, and definitely bear all the consequences. This is democracy.

Q: Do you think the March 14 [ruling coalition] can win?

A: I strongly believe that the commitment of the majority of the people is in getting back to a situation where the state is in control. If it is a state run by Hizbollah, fine. But somebody is in charge. There is one captain. This situation is unsustainable where there are many captains.

I believe in March 14 and the people who subscribe to what they say it stands for: democracy, openness, tolerance, independence, excellent relations with Syria. I am fully in favour of excellent relations with Syria but on the basis of mutual respect and on an equal basis ... Israel is an enemy, Syria is not an enemy. But we cannot and we should not continue to be a satellite state to Syria.

These Sunni extremists [in the North] are a scarecrow ... they are really creating this giant and magnifying it in order to create a perception that there is a need for a policeman ... Instead of waiting for them to come in from Lebanon, they [the Syrians] would do better to control them when they are coming from Iraq. All the people caught or killed in Nahr al-Bared did not come via legal Lebanese points of entry, they came through these porous points.

Q: It is surprising that you say Syria is not an enemy, when there is a suspicion that Syria was responsible for the assassination of Rafiq Hariri?

A: This matter is in the hands of the investigators and there is an international tribunal.

Q: What are the security services doing?

A: This is where we differ from Hizbollah. [Hassan] Nasrallah [Hizbollah leader] said go build your state and when you have finished come and talk to us. We have to build a state together. This is not the way. You can’t have a state if you’re not going to work for it. They want to get all the fruits of the state but not to comply with what the state is really for… we want to have fair play, a democracy, and to work towards having a proper election.

Weekend Site Upgrades

Hey Everyone,

Thanks for being so patient, first with the extended vacation and now with the weekend updates.

Due to career-related developments, particularly over the summer, its become pretty hard for me to sit down and write drawn-out analysis pieces. These pieces have formed the central characteristics of this blog and were the primary drivers for its creation - thus making this turn of events that much more difficult for me and the Blacksmiths of Lebanon blog's continued existence.

The updates implemented over the past weekend (and which I will continue to work on throughout the coming weeks) are therefore meant to allow for a bending - as opposed to a breaking - of the blog under the strain of my altered schedule.

The most distinctive feature of these updates is the creation of the READER sections: THE BLACKSMITH READER; and, THE BLACKSMITH BUSINESS READER. These two sections will allow the blog's visitors to access interesting articles pertinent to the political, social, and economic situation in Lebanon from sources from around the world. Posts in these sections will contain direct quotes from articles referenced, with minimal commentary from myself.

Both for practical and aesthetic reasons a menu bar was created just below our blog's header. This menu will allow the reader to gain quick and easy access to the READER sections mentioned above, as well as a new MULTIMEDIA section, older ANALYSIS and POLL sections, and the newly created GUEST POST section.

The blog's main page (HOME) will continue to simply show the newest posts put up, no matter what the category.

Ultimately, the idea is that we'll eventually be able to steer back towards more analysis posts as the situation in Lebanon develops (currently the country is embroiled in election-politics with few real developments on the long-term, strategic front).

The GUEST POST section is of particular importance in that it is crucial to us that this space be interactive, providing a voice to all those following the situation in Lebanon and the broader Middle East from within or abroad. Anyone interested in posting here is highly encouraged to get in contact with us.

Finally, an upgrade that I hope to eventually get to (and complete) is the complete overhauling of our tagging/categorization system for our posts. The current system, created back in the day when this blog hosted a large number of contributors, will be replaced with a topics-centered system.

As always your feedback is always welcome.

The Strength of Lebanese Banks

The Financial Times reports on the strength of Lebanon's banks:
As the financial crisis sends shock waves through global markets, Lebanon’s banks are bucking the trend as the beneficiaries of an unprecedented flow of remittances from overseas.

Unlike their counterparts in many western financial centres, Lebanese banks find themselves in the enviable position of having excess capital – bank deposits are on course to grow by almost 50 per cent this year from 2007.

The inflow into bank deposits totalled $7.7bn in the first eight months of this year, according to central bank figures, easily surpassing the 2007 full-year total of $6.6bn, itself a record.

The increase in deposits has been driven by an increase in overseas remittances, which are set to top the $5.5bn total recorded last year. There are 4m Lebanese at home but about 12m abroad, many of whom retain strong ties to their country, sending money home and investing in local real estate.

Many analysts expect deposit growth to reach $10bn by the end of this year, putting banks on track to improve on a 27 per cent growth in profits they recorded last year.

This strong cash base – deposits comprise 85 per cent of Lebanese banks’ assets, making them among the most liquid in the world – and experience of survival through times of turbulence mean that Lebanese lenders are still confident enough to expand aggressively across the Middle East. They say that they are almost entirely unaffected by the international financial crisis.

Banks are prohibited from having more than half of their equity outside the country, and from investing in real estate or derivative products.

“Lebanese banks have very little room to place bets – they are not allowed to invest in or lend to non-investment grade entities, and that protects the system,” says Jean Riachi, chairman of FFA Private Bank, Lebanon’s biggest investment bank.

“Some banks might have some exposure to Lehman Brothers because it was an AA-rated company, but because of the limitations, the exposure cannot be big. The banking system in Lebanon is quite immune,” he says.

Lebanese banks were already enjoying an improving domestic economy, after three years of sluggish growth due to political disasters that included the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the former prime minister, and the 2006 war with Israel.

Private sector economists expect Lebanese gross domestic product to increase by about 5 per cent this year, partly thanks to a peace agreement signed between rival Lebanese factions in Doha in May that has ushered in a period of relative stability.

That deal, coupled with investors from the Gulf looking for places to invest their oil profits, has contributed to a sudden jump in capital inflows into Lebanon, which has one of the most advanced banking systems in the region.

This has led to an unusual situation where banks dwarf the real economy – Lebanese banks have total assets of $100bn in a country with a GDP of $25bn.

“You don’t find that in any other part of the world, except maybe Switzerland,” says Mr Barakat.

This environment means Lebanese banks will be able to continue to expand around the Middle East. In just three years, Bank Audi has gone from having no branches in the region to having operations in Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Sudan.

Meanwhile, Blom, Lebanon’s second-largest bank, will start a corporate and private banking business in Qatar before the end of this year, and will move into the Saudi Arabian financial sector soon after, says Saad Azhari, chairman.

“There are a lot of companies in Saudi Arabia that need to do IPOs [initial public offerings]. The stock market there is very important, so we are going to have a brokerage and do fund management,” Mr Azhari tells the Financial Times.

Blom has businesses in five Arab countries, including Egypt, Syria and Jordan.

“In the future, our plan is to grow our network in the countries where we already are, and to enter into new Arab countries,” he says, adding that these were likely to be in the Gulf but declining to specify target markets.

Palestinian Olive Farmers Under Attack

Lebanonizing the Lebanese Army

The Dailystar talks to analysts about the significance of U.S. military support to the Lebanese Army:
The recent US commitment to supporting the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) represents an effort to shore up state institutions, but the chaotic approach of the assistance undermines Washington's objectives, a number of analysts told The Daily Star on Monday.

US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch, speaking on Sunday at the Future Forum in Abu Dhabi, said the US was not striving for the "Americanization" of the LAF. "What we are asking is the Lebanonization of government institutions, including the army," he said.

By empowering the LAF and the state, the US also hopes to weaken Hizbullah, which controls weapons and infrastructure outside the purview of the state and which the US considers a terrorist organization, said retired General Elias Hanna, who teaches political science at Notre Dame University.

Israelis Mull Offering Non-Aggression Treaty

Ha'aretz reports on discussions within Israel over different negotiating strategies, the latest being one of offering to respect Lebanon's territorial integrity - as well as the country's claim over the Shebaa Farms - in return for a non-aggression pact and a commitment by the Lebanese government to "significantly reduce Hizballah's weapons stores":
Eran Etzion, the head of the Foreign Ministry's political planning section, said a full peace agreement with Lebanon can only come in the wake of a similar deal with Syria. Still, he said, Israel can try to advance on a separate political track with Lebanon, the end result of which could be a long-term non-belligerence pact.

The agreement would be signed by both governments, and its focus would be a reciprocal agreement on the route of the border between the two countries. The deal would include a solution to the dispute over the Shaba Farms border area and the divided village of Ghajar, as well as a number of small border adjustments demanded by Lebanon.

Israel is expected to ask Lebanon to significantly reduce Hezbollah's weapons stores, and to extend the Lebanese army's authority across the entire country, with a special emphasis on the area south of the Litani River, which is the closest area to Israel. In return, an agreement would have to be reached over Israeli overflights in Lebanese airspace.

Supporters of this strategy said an agreement with Syria would be easier to reach than with the Palestinians, the chances for its success are greater and the strategic dividend Israel would receive is bigger. They also said such a deal would greatly change the balance of power in the region by removing the threat posed to Israel by the Syrian army, placing distance between Damascus and Iran and possibly engendering a deal with Lebanon.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Militia Management Courses by Hizballah

The New York Times reports on interrogation documents drawing out Iran's militia-training networks and that country's formation of proxy-militias in Iraq:
Now, more than 80 pages of newly declassified intelligence documents for the first time describe in detail an elaborate network used by Iraqis to gain entry into Iran and train under Iranian supervision. They offer the most comprehensive account to date to support American claims about Iranian efforts to build a proxy force in Iraq.

The prisoners’ accounts cannot be independently verified. Yet the detainees gave strikingly similar details about training compounds in Iran, a clandestine network of safe houses in Iran and Iraq they used to reach the camps and intra-Shiite tensions at the camps between the Arab Iraqis and their Persian Iranian trainers…

…The Iraqis complained that their Iranian trainers did not show them the proper respect and that they made disparaging remarks about Moktada al-Sadr, the Iraqi Shiite cleric who has led an anti-American resistance movement in Iraq.

By contrast, the Iraqis said they tended to forge closer bonds to the Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, Arabs who share a common language with the Iraqis.

Other prisoners shared this dim view of the training, telling American interrogators that a separate training course run by Hezbollah operatives in Lebanon was far superior to the training in Iran.

To get to the training course in Lebanon, the detainees report, the Iraqis were taken by bus to an airport in Iran, where they then flew to Damascus, Syria, and were picked up and driven to the Lebanese border. Once in Lebanon, they said, they participated in several more weeks of training, led by Hezbollah operatives, in “weapons inventory control,” “project planning” and communications.

Stephen Harper + Michel Suleiman

Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper (L) shakes hand with Lebanon's President Michel Suleiman before the start of their meeting at the Francophonie Summit in Quebec City October 18, 2008. The biennial summit of the 55-member countries with large French-speaking populations runs from October 17-19. (REUTERS/Mathieu Belanger)

De-Miners Running out of Funds

Demining workers in orange uniforms and headgear check for possible cluster bombs or mines few meters from homes in the southern village of Aita al-Jabal, Lebanon, Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2008. The U.N. Mine Action Coordination Center has warned that if no funds are received, removal of unexploded ordnance will be stopped — a move that threatens lives of thousands of people since tens of thousands of cluster bombs, mines, unexploded shells and other ordnance still exist in Lebanon. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

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