Across the Bay

Sunday, August 31, 2008

"Lebanonization" and "Global Reach"

Quick, someone call Augustus Richard Norton to urge him to contest the following reports. For Norton has assured us over the years that Hezbollah has been "Lebanonized" and did not have "global reach." Or, as it has been put often, Hezbollah has "evolved" from what it used to be in the 80s. Right.

Witness the extent of their "evolution" and lack of "global reach."

The National follows up on a story that I've blogged in the past:

Fighters from Iraq’s Mahdi Army have detailed how they are receiving training from Lebanese Hizbollah in advanced insurgency tactics to use against US troops, even as Washington continues to negotiate a pact that may see most American soldiers leave Iraq by 2012.

At least 100 militants from the Mahdi Army, a powerful militia that opposes the American presence in Iraq, went to Lebanon earlier this summer to receive the training, according to two fighters who claim to have taken part.

In a series of interviews, they described being instructed in leadership methods and religious indoctrination techniques, as well as how best to ambush US troops and evade American air strikes. Their claims have not been independently verified and Hizbollah denies any such link with the Iraqi group.

US intelligence officials, however, say there are strong ties between the Lebanese and Iraqi militants and last week accused Hizbollah fighters of training Iraqis in camps inside Iran.
Sayed Ali said he was “one of at least a hundred” fighters who travelled to Lebanon via Syria in May. The passage was organised by Hizbollah, he said. He returned to Iraq almost two months later.

And now, across the globe to Venezuela:

Western anti-terrorism officials are increasingly concerned that Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Shiite Muslim militia that Washington has labeled a terrorist group, is using Venezuela as a base for operations.

Linked to deadly attacks on Jewish targets in Argentina in the early 1990s, Hezbollah may be taking advantage of Venezuela's ties with Iran, the militia's longtime sponsor, to move "people and things" into the Americas, as one Western government terrorism expert put it.
"It's becoming a strategic partnership between Iran and Venezuela," said a Western anti-terrorism official who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the issue's sensitivity.
Those deepening ties worry U.S. officials because Iranian spies around the world have been known to work with Hezbollah operatives, sometimes using Iranian embassies as cover, Western intelligence experts say.

In June, Assistant Secretary of State Thomas A. Shannon said Iran "has a history of terror in this hemisphere, and its linkages to the bombings in Buenos Aires are pretty well established."
The most concrete allegations of a Hezbollah presence in Venezuela involve money-raising. In June, the U.S. Treasury Department designated two Venezuelan citizens as Hezbollah supporters and froze their U.S. assets.
Agents of Iran's Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah have allegedly set up a special force to attempt to kidnap Jewish businesspeople in Latin America and spirit them away to Lebanon, according to the Western anti-terrorism official. Iranian and Hezbollah operatives traveling in and out of Venezuela have recruited Venezuelan informants working at the Caracas airport to gather intelligence on Jewish travelers as potential targets for abduction, the Western anti-terrorism official said.
Hezbollah has long operated in the Lebanese communities of Latin America. In addition to receiving a multimillion-dollar infusion from Iran, the militia finances itself by soliciting or extorting money from the Lebanese diaspora and through rackets such as smuggling, fraud and the drug and diamond trade in South America and elsewhere, Matthew Levitt, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Congress in 2005.

This is not to mention the Tri-Border area, where Hezbollah has long been entrenched (Jeffrey Goldberg wrote about it in The New Yorker back in 2002). The LAT report continues:

Three years ago, police in Colombia and Ecuador broke up an international cocaine-smuggling ring that functioned in Latin American countries, including Venezuela, and allegedly sent profits to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The lawless "tri-border" region connecting Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina has been a center of organized crime activities and finance linked to Hezbollah, Western anti-terrorism officials say.

Hezbollah operatives based there participated, along with Iranian spies, in the car bombings in Buenos Aires of the Israeli Embassy in 1992 and a Jewish community center two years later that killed a total of 114 people, an Argentine indictment charges.

In the aftermath of that indictment, filed in 2006, Hezbollah and its Iranian sponsors, chiefly the Revolutionary Guard, decided to shift from the increasingly scrutinized tri-border area to other countries, including Venezuela, Western anti-terrorism officials say.

"It preserves the capability of Hezbollah and the Revolutionary Guard to mount attacks inside Latin America. . . . It is very, very important to Iran and Hezbollah right now."

So yeah, Norton is quite obviously right, they have no global reach! And of course, as you know, General Aoun in his famous Memorandum of Understanding (aka. Toilet Paper) has already "Lebanonized" Hezbollah (perhaps he didn't read Norton to find out that Hezbollah had already been "Lebanonized" well beforehand by Hezbollah "experts"!).

"Lebanonized"? What a joke...

Friday, August 29, 2008

Yet Another Message to the Army

An excellent editorial from NOW Lebanon on Hezbollah's latest murderous attack against the Lebanese army.

At best, Hezbollah must accept the fact that, either its fighters are incompetent, or, if was another group, that its influence in the South is not as far reaching as they claim. At worst, it was a deliberate act, one designed to send a message to the army on the eve of the cabinet meeting. Hardly the actions of a super-patriotic organization that wants to coordinate defense issues with the same army. But then again, we have known since early May where Hezbollah’s true allegiances lie, and if it were the latter, the implications of the act are almost too disturbing to dwell on.

It also no coincidence – for there are none in Lebanese politics – that the incident came amid an atmosphere of US and Arab eagerness to support and assist the Lebanese army, such as was expressed by the recent visits of the Egyptian foreign minister and US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Asia and the Near East David Hale, who’s visit with the Department of Defense’s delegation was aimed at providing the Lebanese army with aid. Naturally, this support is not welcome by those who are working to weaken state institutions, including the army. But then again, the battle today appears to be between two schools: One aimed at building strong state institutions and another that wants to pervert the same institutions into tools working for political agendas.

Read it all. More to come.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Russian Weapons to Hezbollah?

You all read the news by now that Syria's dictator went to acquire certain types of weapons from the Russians, such as the Pantsyr-S1 air defense missile systems and the BUK-M1 surface-to-air missiles (SA-11 GADFLY).

However, the Syrians wanted three types of missile systems in particular: the S-300 surface-to-air missile system with a 200 km range, the Igla (SA-18) MANPADS (man-portable air defense systems) with a range of 5-8 km, and the Iskander-E missile system (range of 280 km).

The Israelis interfered with Putin in 2005 to stop the sale of these systems in particular. While Russia did indeed refrain from selling the S-300 and the Iskander, they ended up selling the Syrians the Strelets missile system, which consisted of vehicle-mounted Iglas, but did not include the man-portable platform, over the protests of the US and Israel.

The Syrians had already passed along to Hezbollah anti-tank systems and rockets from their own stockpiles, such as the RPG-29 and the AT- 14 Kornet-E and AT-13 Metis-M. Photographs were delivered to Russia as evidence that weapons exported by Moscow to Syria ended up with Hezbollah.

As such, the concerns that the Syrians would pass man-portable (or even vehicle-mounted) anti-aircraft systems, such as the shoulder-fired Igla, remain valid. That Syria is still seeking these systems only highlights the likely intent to pass them along to Hezbollah.

Indeed, Corriere della Sera reports today that a Hezbollah delegation, traveling with Iranian papers and cover, visited the "Expo 2008" arms expo in Russia, between July 9 and 12, looking for anti-tank and anti-aircraft systems.

It's unclear whether a deal was reached to purchase anything, or whether the Hezbollah delegation was compiling a list to be bankrolled by Iran and delivered through Syria, as has been the case.

It's seemingly not likely that the Russians would accept the Syrian dictator's request for a Russian missile station in Syria, and will likely restrict their message to the dispatch of the Kuznetsov (whether they will upgrade the Tartus port, as had long been the story, remains to be seen). However, whether they will agree to go ahead with the Igla or other systems, is something to watch for.

All of this comes after the revelation of Syrian cooperation with North Korea on building a clandestine nuclear facility, as well as their continuing cooperation with the Iranians.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Maybe She has a Clue Afterall


The foreign minister also commented on Syrian President Bashar Assad's visit to Russia, saying that "Syria keeps violating the weapons embargo, but is able to get (the international community's) validation by holding indirect peace talks with Israel. It’s trying to regain its legitimacy despite its support of terror organizations."

And, the same report from Haaretz:

Livni expressed concern about a visit to Russia this week by Syrian President Bashar Assad, who is reportedly seeking to purchase long-range anti-aircraft missiles from Moscow.

"It is of mutual interest of Israel of Russia, of the pragmatic leaders in the region, not to send these kinds of long range missiles to Syria," which she said was working to destabilize Lebanon, strengthen ties with Iran and prop up extremist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas.

Livni expressed concern that Israel's negotiations with Syria granted the Arab state legitimacy, despite its continued support of terror groups.

The best articulation of this point, however, comes from Noah Pollak over at contentions:

In this case, the “Israel-Syria track” is a product of Syria’s wish to break free from the isolation imposed over its decision to operate as the Grand Central Station of terrorism in the Middle East. The peace process has nothing to do with peace, and everything to do with Syria’s desire to see Western powers to beg for its cooperation, which is frequently promised and never delivered. The existence of this “track” is not value-neutral. It is a reward for violence: it allows Syria to carry on with one foot in the Iranian and Palestinian terrorist camp and one foot in the Western engagement camp. Kurtzer is only too eager to lobby for allowing Syria to continue having it both ways ad infinitum.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Report from Northern Lebanon

Hanin Ghaddar filed an interesting report the other day on the situation in the north that confirms the conclusions covered in my previous two posts:

Residents admit the Salafists did fight alongside the Popular Resistance, made up of supporters of former prime ministers Omar Karami and Najib Mikati. But this was no holy war; residents claim that they took up arms fearing another massacre. “The recent battles proved that [the Salafists] are weak,” said another former fighter, who claimed to have been held in a Syrian jail for several years. “Those who really fought and defended the neighborhood are the boys and men who felt that they need to defend their families against another massacre. People never forget,” he said.

Also, Hazem Amin echoes another of the conclusions noted in the posts (Translation and emphasis mine):

Regarding the Tripoli explosion specifically, what does attributing it to "international terrorism" aim at? First, it aims at reviving illusions about ties between international terrorism to Lebanese political factions, which is something no one dared to hint at after the Tripoli explosion save for General Aoun, who it seems has been delegated for these types of tasks. Second, it aims at focusing attention on one side and none other when analyzing the goals behind the explosion. Third and most important, it leads to neglecting the hypothesis that the explosion aimed at splintering the structure of a community that has followed a political project after the assassination of prime minister Rafik Hariri, and that this explosion is a part of incidents that began with the battles in Nahr el-Bared, on to the battles in Bab el-Tebbaneh and Baal Mohsen, and today have moved to a new style in targeting that society and exhausting it.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Assad's Trap in Tripoli

To follow up on my previous post, read Michael Young's entire column in the Daily Star. Note especially the analysis about the actual (as opposed to hyped) size of the Salafists in the north:

Like the attack against a military intelligence office in Abdeh several weeks ago, the aim of those placing the bombs was to convince you and I that Sunni extremist groups are alive and well in the North, that they have an axe to grind with the army because of Nahr al-Bared
The reality, I believe, is different. Recently, colleagues who closely follow events in Tripoli have started hearing of Syrian warnings to the Lebanese that there would be no peace in the city until the Salafists were routed. Who would conduct such an operation but the army, explaining why soldiers have been the victims of recent attacks. Syria's implication in the bombings is highly probable, its objective being to push the army and the Salafists into a confrontation. This would create a serious rift within the Sunni community, weaken the disoriented pro-Hariri forces in Tripoli, and allow Damascus' allies to regain the initiative in the city.

The reality is that Salafists in Tripoli are not strong. In the recent fighting between the Sunni quarters of Bab al-Tebbaneh and Qobbeh and the Alawite quarter of Jabal Mohsen, the Salafists, who belong to a variety of small groups, proved to be much less numerous than anyone had imagined. As a neighborhood leader in Bab al-Tebbaneh described it, the confrontations exposed the Salafists' weaknesses, not their strengths. The brunt of the fighting was borne by the men of Bab al-Tebbaneh, though followers of a leading opposition politician used the hostilities to burnish his legitimacy as a "defender of the Sunnis." The Alawite official Rifaat Eid admitted that the fighting erupted after a rocket propelled grenade was fired at his men by partisans of this opposition politician.
It was no coincidence, either, that the bombing occurred on the day of Michel Sleiman's visit to Damascus. There were several messages to the president: that Lebanese security will continue to remain vulnerable if he opposes Syrian priorities (and that includes, among other things, Syrian choices for the post of army commander and military intelligence chief); that Sleiman's priorities, in turn, such as addressing diplomatic relations between Beirut and Damascus and the fate of Lebanese prisoners in Syria, are secondary to the Syrians; that intimidation remains Syria's modus operandi when it comes to its relationship with Lebanon; and that Sleiman would make a mistake to rely too much on the parliamentary majority, which is buttressed by a Sunni community that can be readily split.
The bus bombing yesterday ultimately targeted not the army but the Sunnis. Syria wants them irredeemably divided. Hariri must ensure that such a plan fails.

The opposition politician in question, I believe, is Omar Karami. There were also reports from Lebanon that Najib Miqati's men were also involved in the fighting against Jabal Mohsen, and he has been recruiting former Tawhid cadres. This is what the NOW Lebanon editorial cited in my previous post calls the "multitudinous Sunnis" in Tripoli. The reality in the north is very complex, as Young describes (especially when he briefly lists some of the factions and their backers).

Never mind the caricatures of the Syrian regime flacks and other clueless dilettantes or self-serving hacks. That's propaganda and water carrying, not analysis.

Assad's Reminder

NOW's editorial this morning on the terrorist bombing in Tripoli is worth quoting at length:

It may be a case of Damascus caressing with one hand and slapping with the other. Wednesday’s callous bombing in Tripoli was in all probability a reminder to the Lebanese that whatever touchy-feely vibes there might have been ahead of President Michel Sleiman’s visit to Damascus – one wrapped in the promise of a breakthrough on diplomatic relations, the fate of Lebanese detainees and talks on border demarcation – Syria still controls this neighborhood and is seeking to smash any concerted opposition to its local and regional influence.

Any real concessions would stick in the Syrian throat, and already the signals are that nothing but a patina of pomp will define the visit. This should come as no surprise to anyone (except maybe French President Nicolas Sarkozy) who has been following the Baathist apparatus at work since April 2005. Simply put, Syria’s goal is the reassertion of its control over Lebanon, this time as part of a regional axis with Iran, and a well-armed Hezbollah and its allies doing its bidding.

At the time of writing there have been no claims of responsibility, but in the sectarian tinderbox that is Tripoli, people will have already made up their own minds. In such a volatile country, what better place to create chaos by creating an atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust? What better time to divide the multitudinous Sunnis of the North’s major city? What better time to accuse the state of being weak by implying a lapse in security? What better time to raise the specter of the so-called Sunni threat by accusing the northern Salafists of the bombing? What better time even to consider intervention in the name of regional security?

The Russians are the current pace setters. They have reminded the Georgians in no uncertain terms that they are still the regional superpower, and even Tbilisi’s close ties with the West – Georgia is on the verge of NATO membership – cannot apparently save it from the Kremlin’s formidable war machine. Why then, should Lebanon, a minnow on the world stage, be spared similar intimidation by its own overbearing neighbor, Syria, on the eve of what is supposedly a new page in Lebanese-Syrian relations?

The bomb at one of Tripoli’s busiest bus stops, like the Ain Aalaq bombing in January 2007, was designed to strike without warning at rush hour. There can be no greater weapon with which to spread fear among an urban population, but what is more sinister is the possibility that, in hinting at the prospect of an Iraq-in-Lebanon scenario, the West might be tempted to turn to anyone, including Damascus, to nip it in the bud.

Along similar lines, Walid Jumblat said the following today:

This explosion confirms that any support for the obscurantist currents by any local or external side will inevitably lead to cloning the Iraqi experience in Lebanon, and we can do without the Awakening Councils and such, because the Army is the only party responsible for security, and this mission requires unconditional support from all the political forces, so that Tripoli can avoid becoming another south Ossetia.

The Syrians and Hezbollah made sure to first undercut local confidence in the Army in the Sunni community (which is something they didn't foresee when they tried Nahr al-Bared and Fateh Islam, but they've since adjusted), before turning it up in Tripoli once again.

Here one cannot help but recall what Nawaf Musawi said not long ago in June when he threatened Saudi Arabia and the Future Movement on the subject of Islamists. Threats like that make you really wonder just how much of a deliberate plan this is, given how the Syrians have pushed relentlessly on that angle, and in Tripoli, since at least 2006, Fathi Yakan and Fateh Islam being just a couple of examples. A much more recent example is the attack against the Lebanese Army in Abdeh, in the north, a few weeks ago. It's all part of the same continuum of Syrian statements in the North. As Muhammad Salam said at the time of the Abdeh attack, and Muhammad Safadi said today, this is aimed at creating a confrontation between the Sunnis of the north and the Lebanese Army. It also aims to create a chasm in the Sunni community and between it and the rest of March 14, and deal a blow to Hariri's Future Movement (as Syria's flacks paint him to the West as simultaneously an al-Qaeda promoter and an unreliable sorcerer's apprentice), which were the exact goals of the Fateh Islam/Fathi Yakan fiasco in 2006. Just ask Sy Hersh, who actively participated in that info ops on behalf of the Syrian regime.

This is a continuation of the Assad regime's open war on Lebanon's Sunnis, and through them, on Lebanon's fragile independence for which they are a central pillar. That was the point of Rafik Hariri's assassination in 2005, it remains so today.

Addendum: For a history of how Syria manipulated violence in Bab el-Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen in the past, read Marius Deeb's account, which I had referenced here.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Weak and Vulnerable

Noah Pollak and Barry Rubin comment on the significance of the recent assassination of Brig. Gen. Muhammad Suleiman in Tartus (English precis here and here. Debka's claims here. As always with Debka, handle with appropriate amounts of salt.)

Addendum: Hazem Saghieh also comments on the fragility of the "rejectionists" in a column in al-Hayat entitled "Rocks on Clay."