Kerry’s “safer world” is not safe at all

The piece was published on Eurasia Diary.

“Today marks the start of a safer world, one that we hope will remain safer for many years to come,” said on Sunday U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, while announcing the Implementation Day of the Iranian deal. “We understand this marker alone will not wipe away all the concerns the world has rightly expressed about Iran’s policies in the region. But we also know there isn’t a challenge in the entire region that wouldn’t become much more complicated, much worse, if Iran had a nuclear weapon,” he added.

This shows how little understanding there is in the Western political circles of the Sunni, the Shiites and the Middle East in general. The Middle East is complicated enough without an Iranian nuclear weapon, it’s true. But the truth is that, neither Tehran nor any other Sunni theocracy, including Saudi Arabia, needs any nuclear weapons and has an interest in building one. Proxy wars work too well.

At this point, a stronger Iran means more strife in the Middle East and it is not something the Middle East is looking forward to. Over the years, Tehran has armed enough proxies to become a dominant regional player, leaving rival Sunni autocracies feeling a lot of resentment towards the Western powers that made the deal with Iran.

A pan-Arab Iranian-backed Shiite militia network

According to a report of the Institute for the Study of War, Iran has been trying hard to keep Bashar al Assad in power in Damascus: the Revolutionary Guards have been providing training and intelligence support to the Syrian army; Tehran also provides supplies by land, sea and air, using its influence on the Iraqi government to fly military equipment to Syria despite international embargoes; but it also involved its armed Iraqi and Lebanese proxies in combat; Hezbollah and the Iraqi Shiite militiamen have also provided training to the Syrian army troops that did not have the experience of urban or guerilla warfare. Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, Syrian Sunni activists talked about Iranian Revolutionary Guards involved in the crackdown on protesters and videos of captured Iranian military emerged from Syria.  In 2012, Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade was formed: a Shiite pro-government militia which includes both Syrian and foreign Shite fighters.

But, as far as Iran is concerned, the story is much older than the Syrian crisis; it goes back to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the war that followed. It’s difficult to trace the money flow between Tehran and Basra or Beirut. But it’s easier to look at the cooperation between Hezbollah and the Iraqi Islamic Resistance groups, such as Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Kataeb Hezbollah. That is an old story.  In 2008, US officials warned the Iraqi government that Lebanese Hezbollah fighters were training Iraqi Shiite militia fighters in the vicinity of Tehran. The info, they said, came from interrogations. The presence of Lebanese Hezbollah advisers in Iraq became obvious when Hezbollah’s senior member, Ali Mussa Daqduq, was captured in 2007 together with Qais al-Khazali and his brother Laith al-Khazali, the leaders of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, an Al Mahdi Army splinter that refused to disarm. The Iraqi Shiite group had claimed in the past responsibility for several attacks on the US troops in Basra as well as kidnapping and killing at least 5 US soldiers in Karbala.

Qais al-Khazali was freed from prison in 2009. Hezbollah’s Daqduq remained in detention until November 2012, when he walked free from his house arrest in Baghdad and travelled to Lebanon. His whereabouts are still unknown, but given the Lebanese state authorities reluctance in searching Hezbollah-dominated territory, that was to be expected. Khazali is now a politician in Iraq and had asked his group to lay down weapons, just as other Iraqi militias had done . In the 2014 elections his group won a seat in the Parliament. It seemed that there was no need for the Shiites in Iraq to mobilize. However, Syria was a game changer.

The Islamic State

Iraqi Shiite militiamen got involved in the Syrian war alongside Hezbollah and the Syrian army. According sources in Iraq, Asaib Ahl Al Haq maintained around 2000-3000 fighters in Syria since 2013, fighting in Al-Ghouta, particularly in Jobar, in Aleppo and Homs.

But when the Islamic State (former ISIS) takeover of Mosul and several other northern Iraqi cities in June 014, many Iraqi Shiites, fighters or former militia fighters volunteered and became the main factions fighting the Islamic State alongside the Iraqi Army. Asaib Ahl al-Haq’s spokesman Ahmed al-Kinani said that the group’s forces were again active: in the eastern Diyala province, areas around Samarra and in the western and southern outskirts of Baghdad. He said they had “thousands of fighters” on the ground. The group had “fought side by side” with security forces as well as “at the forefront.”

In videos emerging from the conflict, the gore executions displayed by the Islamic State extremists were somewhat matched by quite cruel displays of ruthlessness by Shiite militants: they pose with the corpses of dead ISIS militants or carve the flesh off the charred body of ISIS fighters burned alive.

Recruiting in Central Asia

With Hezbollah overstretched on the Syrian front and desperately recruiting untrained youth in Lebanon and employing minors on the battlefields, the Iranian efforts to keep its influence in Syria reached to Shiite communities in Afghanistan and Pakistan in order to reinforce pro-Assad militias.

The Zeinabiyoun, a unit of Pakistani fighters named for a granddaughter of the prophet Mohammad buried in the shrine, is the latest contingent in an Iranian drive to recruit Shiites from Central Asia to fight in Syria. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards websites praise the “martyrdom” of Pakistani fighters in Syria, and a posting in mid-November 2015 on a Twitter account bearing the group’s name displayed the pictures of 53 men, described as fighters killed in battle.

The number of Shiite fighters coming from Afghanistan is much bigger. The AfghaniFatimiyun Brigade fights under Hezbollah Afghanistan. Over 10,000 Afghan Shiites fightfor the Assad regime alongside Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iraqi militias. According to a military analyst who studies the Afghan Shiites, it is not a surprise that this brigade counts many casualties, as most of the Shiites in Afghanistan have no experience in warfare, however poor they might be. But he also said that the Iranian recruiters offer a good amount of money for the fighters, making the trip to Syria more attractive. Once they get there, they’re thrown directly into the battle.

According to the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, General Ali Jafari,Tehran has succeeded in recruiting thousands of proxy fighters thanks to the sectarian conflicts have increased the “revolutionary awareness” of the Middle East’s Shia youth. He stated that over 200,000 recruits come from Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan. With economic sanctions lifted, Tehran will be able to recruit even more Shiites to fight its war in Syria or ensure its political influence across the region the way Hezbollah has for over three decades.

A spiral of escalation

There are many elephants in the room after the Iranian deal and many politicians in the West simply look the other way. Liberal Arabs who hoped that Iran would break under the Western pressure and would give way to secularism feel let down. As Lebanese journalist Hanin Ghaddar, herself a Shiite liberal criticized by Hezbollah for her opposition to the group’s autocratic practices, points it out, the Iranian deal is the Arab liberals’ worst nightmare. For the Shiite liberals, it means that the theocracy in Tehran not only survives, but it’s strengthened and will spread across the region, strengthening groups in the likes of Hezbollah in Lebanon or Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq in Iraq. It also means that the Sunni theocracies will give way to more radicalism to fight off Iran’s influence, will fund Islamist proxies across the region to use them against Iran. At this point, the danger is that a country like Saudi Arabia, where the monarchy feels let down by its alliance with the US, stops hunting down Al Qaeda militants and facilitates their trips to Syria and elsewhere, where they can fight Iranian proxies.

For Europe and the United States it’s all about keeping this war in the Middle East, letting the Sunni-Shiite conflict consume itself. But the truth is that, this conflict will consume much more than itself, because it is not really a Sunni-Shiite conflict. It’s a confrontation between the Sunni Islamism and Shiite Islamism that’s radicalizing and sucking in more and more groups from across the world. And no one can be kept safe of that.

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Putin’s game

The piece has been publish on Eurasia Diary.

Europe is divided. Russia was left out in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is, of course, the West’s fault that Europe is divided. That was Russian President Vladimir Putin’s message for the people that read Bild, Germany’s most sold tabloid newspaper. But it has been the message he’s been sending the Russian people for over a decade and a half: that Russia has been purposefully and unjustly left out, isolated by the Western powers, especially the United States; that it’s time Moscow showed its worth to the world.
“If there had been political will, if they had wanted to, they could have done anything,” Putin said. But no common alliance, truly uniting the whole of Europe has been created, with NATO instead acting in breach of all promises by expanding eastwards. “They wanted to reign,” Putin added. “In the last 20-25 years, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union when the second center of gravity in the world disappeared, there was a desire to fully enjoy one’s sole presence at the pinnacle of world fame, power and prosperity. There was absolutely no desire to turn either to international law or to the United Nations Charter. Wherever they became an obstacle, the UN was immediately declared outdated.”

It seems that Putin’s time has arrived: Europe is paralyzed by the refugee crisis dilemma and Russia is the only country that makes the difficult decisions in Syria. Whether it might be difficult or not to argue with him, nobody in the world seems willing to contradict him. Not even the United States. A year ago, no one would have foreseen this turn of events. So why and how did Putin do it?
Lost opportunities, bad circumstances

The truth is that the Russian Federation is hardly a victim of the United States, NATO and other boogiemen Putin is talking about. Things are more complicated on that front than Putin is saying and is willing to admit. Europe and NATO did, indeed, fail to integrate the Russian Federation at the end of the Cold War and that is the reason why the world has a hard time dealing with the crises in Syria and Ukraine and even tiny Moldova, and had to deal with a war in Georgia in 2008.

The Western alliances integrated the Eastern European countries quite fast, invested a lot, financially and politically, in the emerging Eastern democracies, but when it came to Russia they obviously failed to reach out to Moscow.

The late Russian president Boris Yeltsin tried to forge an alliance with the US Clinton administration in the 1990s. But Bill Clinton, the exponent of an approach in US foreign policy based on liberalism, refused the idea: the Cold War was over; there was no need to forge alliances anymore. Moreover, Russia joining NATO would have been an expensive process; the Marshall Plan had cost the US $13 billion and it was a question of reconstructing only Western Europe. The Soviet Union was an enormous investment. Boris and Bill remained friends and met 18 times during their president mandates, but the US administration remained hesitant. The time they spent together could have been spent on normalization, but that was a costly, time-consuming process. As a result, the resentment remained entrenched in both the West and Russia; how do you tell people to stop resenting what they were educated to resent, to stop feeling fear for what has been the object of their fears for half a century?

Vladimir Putin himself reached out to George W. Bush after 9/11; he even suggested an anti-terror alliance. Bush also said no and Barack Obama did not change this policy when, in 2009, Dmitri Medvedev push forward a strategic partnership idea.

No real strategy

There were, of course, reasons for Washington’s reservation. A partnership with Russia was difficult to grasp: Russia was a big ally and Washington was used to dominating NATO and to a European Union that was quite weak militarily and completely dependent of Washington in terms of security. Russia was simply too much of a headache for Washington; its presence in the same alliance would have completely changed the rules of the international game, and most foreign policy makers know that the kremlin is no easy partner in anything. The American public, not to mention several NATO members in Central and Eastern Europe, would have had a hard time getting used to the idea of a “friendly Russia,” after decades they had seen it as an enemy. Of course, the human rights question marks and the oppression on political opposition did not help Russia’s case.

Foreign policy decisions might be complicated, but the truth is that Western countries, including the US, had absolutely no coherent strategy in dealing with Russia after the Cold War. Neither did Russia make too much of an effort to prove it’s a trustworthy partner. The Kremlin leadership has remained tributary to old practices of sometimes violently silencing political dissent, playing hide and seek on spiky issues at the diplomatic level, and still acting like critics were spies of the US, and frankly, acting like a bully around the Black Sea under the pretext of “ protecting Russian speaking communities from aggression.”

Yes, the Russian people widely feel that their country should have a say in international matters. Putin wants the Russians to know he’s getting the country back in the world power club so that his party wins the elections. He knows the country lacks the economic means to engage in another world domination quest like the old times of the USSR. But right now, Moscow wants back its international role.

The importance of Syria

The intervention in Syria was definitely a game changer. After the intervention in Ukraine and Crimean independence referendum, things did not look well for Putin’s plans. “I guess I’ll shake your hand but I have only one thing to say to you: you need to get out of Ukraine,” Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper bluntly told Putin at a G20 summit in Brisbane, Australia. Not many leaders shook Putin’s hand at the international summit. He barely talked to anyone actually, and even had breakfast alone.
The Russian economy was not going well either, with international sanctions and oil prices dropping. That was the tip of the iceberg, as the causes of the difficulties of the Russian economy were to be found in decades of technological backwardness created during communism and very difficult to overcome.
But with the intervention in Syria, everything has changed. Russia is again the center of the world’s attention and Putin has, one more time, managed to give his constituency a reason to rejoice. Putin was received at the White House to talk about the Middle East with Obama. Russia was again a major player. While many US based analysts and administration members still think of Russia as a regional player, the Russian narrative on Syria has been that United States and its allies have failed in the war against terrorism, that Russia is the only hope for the Syria, that all Syrian rebels are Islamic State or Al Qaeda and there is no moderate Syrian opposition, and that, despite Western claims, the Sukhoi warplanes only strike terrorists and never civilians. This narrative seems to be gaining ground.
Playing on resentments
The Russian president is known for turning a great disadvantage into a winning card and he exactly that in Syria. With an economy greatly affected by old vulnerabilities, international sanctions and diplomatic isolation, Russia was in a very tight spot. But Russian citizens are making financial sacrifices in order for Russia to be able to get its place in the world back; Putin has had the people convinced of it.

Just like in a poker game, he played a very weak hand very well: the Middle East was the only region where Russia could be assertive; Syria was the only country in that region where Russia could intervene and its military was the only way Moscow could assert its role.

Putin’s interview with Germany’s best sold tabloids does not come at a random moment. Germany is going through a lot of anxiety over the New Year’s Eve incidents in Cologne, when dozens of women were molested by an organized crowd, and the incidents are widely blamed on the refugees from North Africa and the Middle East. All this matches perfectly with Kremlin’s narrative reproduced by most Russian state media: that Europe is at risk from hordes of Muslim immigrants that foster terrorism, and Russia is the only voice of reason and the only forces fighting terrorism, while Western governments face dilemmas on immigration and human rights. His message is that Europe should listen to Russia more. His message would not go through in Eastern Europe, a region where the memories of the Soviet Union’s influence are still strong. However, in Western European countries that haven’t witnessed real turmoil since the end of WWII, people might believe in his narrative.

Russia is doing in Syria on its own what Putin offered to do after 9/11 against Al Qaeda, in a partnership with the US. When he meets Bush, if he’ll ever meet him again, he can say “I told you so!”

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Behind Saudi Arabia’s execution spree


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The execution of Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr for terrorism in Saudi Arabia has sparked outrage across the Middle East and threatens to escalate to a regional sectarian Sunni-Shiite war raising global security concerns. Saudi Arabia’s decision came as a surprise. The cleric had been imprisoned since 2012 and he was hardly a security threat anymore.

But the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran has been going on on foreign soil by proxy for years and year, both countries using their pawns to destabilize the other’s interests in countries around the Middle East. The Middle East was a bipolar political construction pitting Sunni versus Shiite, with Saudi Arabia and Iran leading the two camps. Politically, it has always been tit-for-tat between Riyadh and Tehran and, unfortunately, this war wasn’t always rational and never put too much price on human lives.

The Iranian-Saudi proxy war

Most of this influence battle has been happening in Lebanon and Syria, and, more recently, in Yemen. When Iran armed and financed Hezbollah as its ally in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia invested in Future Movement as a Sunni political force. When Iran brought Hezbollah on the battle fields of Syria under the pretext of defending Shiite shrines and population, it immediately accused Saudi Arabia of financing the Islamic State and other jihadist factions and even accused Riyadh of forging ISIS together with Israel.  As a response the Saudi monarchy financed Salafist brigades in Syria, but also pledged a $3 billion donation to the Lebanese State Army to buy weapons in order to fight jihadist terrorism. The move was meant to shift the public opinion in Beirut that only Hezbollah was capable of facing the jihadist threat coming from Syria, while Lebanon’s army was struggling without weapons.  But while Hezbollah was active on the Syrian front making territorial gains, Saudi Arabia’s protégés were suffering from lack of international support, were fighting the government forces and were also being decimated by the Islamic State.

For the Iranian side, the emergence of the Islamic State has always been a Saudi affair and Iran’s officials as well as their regional allies have never ceased to frame the Syrian conflict that way. For the Saudi side and its allies, it was Iran that called the shots in Syria and massacring the Syrian Sunnis. The truth was never an issue; it was all a matter of forming perceptions.

In reality, the Iranian influence in Iraq increased, with Sunnis in the north of the country becoming bitterer at Nouri al Maliki’s discriminatory policies during the second mandate. After the fall of Mosul to the Islamic State in mid-2014, Iran scored more points on the regional front: it started reviving and arming Shiite militias, such as As’aib al-Ahl al-Haq, which fought both in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State and the Yemeni Houthis, which Saudi Arabia believed to be financed and armed by Iran, were gaining control of Yemen.

On top of that, the deal between the US-led P5+1 and Iran over the latter’s nuclear file and the recent verdict of the UN nuclear watchdog that there was no actual evidence that Tehran was still developing a nuclear bomb.

The monarchy of Saudi Arabia, a longtime US ally in the Middle East, woke up to a new regional reality and felt abandoned by Washington’s clear policy of leaving regional matters be solved in the region.

The Shiite Saudi Spring

The execution of Nimr comes within this context: a Saudi Arabia that feels let down by its powerful ally and increasingly threatened and cornered by Iran’s reinforced role in Syria and Iraq. When cornered, one becomes irrational, obstinate and vengeful.

Saudi Arabia’s actual issue with a Shiite rebellion was quite negligible. Shiite Muslims amount to 15 percent of Saudi’s population. They’re not allowed to build mosques or other types of religious centers because their religion is considered heresy. The Shiite participation to economic and political life is virtually non-existent since most are viewed as pawns of Iran.

After the Bahrain revolts in 2011, the Saudi Shiites took indeed to the streets to ask for more religious freedoms. Their protests in 2011-2012 were rather small and short-lived. Protests in Jeddah, Qatif Hofuf, Awamiya and Riyadh were rather small compared to the rest of the Arab countries experiencing turmoil. Nevertheless, the movement was smoldered in its crib. Protesters were shot in November 2011, January and February 2012. Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was wounded in the leg and imprisoned in July 2012, with Iranian affiliated media making a big case out of it, although Iran itself had done the same with opponents of its own theocracy. Nimr was reportedly tortured and started a hunger strike. Dozens other protesters were arrested and detained without charge, according to Human Rights Watch.

The Saudi authorities blamed Iran for the Shiite uprising, accusing the protesters of being “sponsored financially or supplied with weapons and were working as part of an organization.” Saudi Arabia also designated Iran-funded Lebanon-based Hezbollah as a terrorist organization at the same time with the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement whose teachings had led to the politicization of Saudi Salafist circles pinning them against the monarchy. Saudi Arabia wanted to show that it makes no difference between terrorists, Sunni jihadists or Shiite opponents of the monarchy. For authoritarian regimes often call political opponents “terrorists.”

Anxiety and perceived existential threats

Nimr might have as well stayed in prison. He wasn’t a real security threat anymore, nor were the other three Shiites that were executed at his side. But there is a heavy grudge against Iran inside the Saudi monarchy, one that certainly matches Tehran’s own resentment towards Riyadh. Saudi Arabia’s man in Syria, Zahran Alloush, the son of a Syrian Salafist sheikh who lives in Saudi Arabia, was killed on December 25 in a strike on Utaya, east of Damascus. However, in Saudi Arabian official’s view, it is Iran, not the Syrian government that calls the shots. Tit-for-tat.

Saudi Arabia was never submissive to international human rights conventions and neither is Iran. Nimr’s executions is about an irrational, paranoid perception in both Tehran and Riyadh that everything one is doing is to permanently scheme and destabilize the other by any means.

What happened in Saudi Arabia comes from a lot of anxiety over the perceived Iranian threat ahead of lifting the economic sanctions on Tehran. When policy makers in Riyadh woke up one morning and realized the US might not have the kingdom’s back in the regional power struggle, they weren’t happy.  The way Washington handled Syria, was a source of frustration for Riyadh. Saudi Arabia doesn’t have choices, there are no other alliances that they can rely on the global level. However, Riyadh is obviously ready to stop appeasing the West and its human rights pressures and does whatever it wants however it sees fit, including staging the biggest execution in its recent history and bombing civilians in Yemen. To put it simply, that’s how one becomes radicalized.

I’m on Twitter @aml1609.

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A deal that benefits Hezbollah

Scores of Syrian rebel fighters were evacuated from the besieged village of Zabadani, in the vicinity of the Syrian border with Lebanon, to be swapped for 300 families of Shiites besieged since September by rebels in two Idlib villages. The deal was brokered by the United Nations.

The Syrian rebel fighters would travel from the town of Zabadani to Beirut Airport and travel to Turkey, a source close to negotiations told Reuters. Simultaneously around 300 families from two besieged towns in a rebel-held area in Idlib province would go to Turkey and fly to Beirut from there. The deal is one of several negotiated by the UN for local ceasefires and swaps between various parties fighting in Syria.  The ceasefires in Zabadani and the two Shiite towns were brokered by Iran and Turkey in September.

The winner from this deal is obviously neither the Syrian government, nor the Syrian rebels. It’s Lebanon’s Hezbollah. A closer look at the reality on the ground, especially in Qalamoun Mountains, and at Hezbollah’s political situation in Lebanon show that the Party of God needed this deal more than anyone. The swap was the result of a stalemate influenced not only by the reality of the Syrian front but also Hezbollah’s political calculations at home, in Lebanon.

Hezbollah’s long battles for strategic Zabadani

The battle for Zabadani, a former resort on the highway that links Beirut to Damascus 12 kilometers way of the Masnaa border crossing, started on July 4 2015. Hezbollah forces and Syrian army troops launched an offensive against an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 rebels affiliated with Al Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front and Islamist and Salafist units of Ahrar al Sham but also unaffiliated  locals. Later, Al Nusra Front denied that it had any fighters left in the town.

Zabadani was the most difficult battle of Hezbollah’s second Qalamoun offensive which began in May 2015. Hezbollah quickly took Tallet Moussa, highest peak of Qalamoun Mountains. The first phase was taking territory east of Tfeil promontory, including Aasal al-Ward, Jobeh, Ras al-Maara, cutting off northern rebels from those in Zabadani to the south. Then the fight went north, to Tallet Moussa. Rebels were thus entrenched between Wadi Khayl and Ras Baalbek, where the Lebanese Army also kept them at bay.

Hezbollah, as well as the Syrian government, wanted the Qalamoun Mountains under their control at any price because they wanted to secure their bases and Shiite villages in the vicinity of the border on Lebanese Eastern Bekaa Valley that often came under shelling of the Syrian rebel brigades; for the Syrian government it has strategic importance because it links Damascus to Homs and the relatively safe Mediterranean coast. By losing Zabadani, the rebels also lose their link to the suburbs of Damascus, but by moving fighters to Idlib they reinforce their positions there.

The stalemate

Fighting in Zabadani was not at all easy for Hezbollah and the Syrian army and they used all their force to break through. Hezbollah reportedly used micro drones, tanks, rocket-assisted mortars, and rifle-mounted grenade launchers. The Syrian Fourth Brigade has been using directed missiles, scores of barrel bombs were dropped and the Syrian Air Force conducted intensified raids over the town. The Syrian Observatory for Human rights counted on July 15, 50 airstrikes and missiles that hit Zabadani.

The campaign in Qalamoun was tough, mostly on Hezbollah, although the group managed to achieve its main target – keep Al Nusra Front and other Salafi rebel groups from attacking Hezbollah’s assets in the border area in Eastern Lebanon. Hezbollah also put a lot of effort in the war propaganda to demonstrate to the public that they weren’t taking as many casualties and that the victories came very quickly. But it was obvious that it wasn’t as easy as they wanted it to seem.

While Al Manar, Hezbollah’s main television channel, insisted on announcing how many rebels the party’s militants had killed in Qalamoun and avoided at all cost in presenting the toll on the Party of God’s side, supporters counted the martyrs. A pro-Hezbollahwebsite  listed all Hezbollah’s casualties in Qalamoun. Some look very young. For instance Mashour Shamseddine who died doing his jihadist duty in South Lebanon (where there is no fighting), or Ibrahim Mouhammad Fakih, nicknamed Ali Moussa, who died doing his jihadist duty in an unknown location. Sending some of its youngest recruits in the front showed quite some level of strain.

It was also very obvious that, in the absence of a deal like the one brokered by Turkey, Iran and the UN, Hezbollah had little chance of clearing Zabadani of rebel presence. There would always be a rebel brigade causing the Party of God trouble at the Lebanese border.

Saving the Shiites in Syria boosts the image in Lebanon

Since admitting to getting involved on the Syrian front in early 2013, Hezbollah had to rebrand its Resistance role. If, for years, it was the Resistance against Israel its involvement on Syrian soil has to be framed as a form of resistance against the “takfiris”,the Sunni jihadists that tolerate no any religion, including other interpretations of Islam. For the Shiite fighters of Hezbollah, the war against the takfiris is equally the war of the Apocalypse, the same way it is for the jihadist of the Islamic State. There’s a common and very popular explanation for the war in Syria among Hezbollah supporters: that the rebellion against the Assad government is a Zionist conspiracy, as Israel worked with the Gulf States to sponsor Al Qaeda and the Islamic State to destroy the anti-Israeli resistance. Hezbollah, although it has been trying to lose the sectarian label of Shiite militia, has legitimized sending its troops into Syria by telling its supporters that it defends the Shiite shrines that are at risk from the attacks of the Sunni jihadists.

However, Hezbollah’s image as the anti-Israeli Resistance has had to suffer in Lebanon. The Israeli strikes killed two of its main Resistance symbols in the past year: Jihad Moughnieh, son of former military leader Imad Moughnieh, and Samir Kuntar, the “hero of the Resistance” who served 20 years in an Israeli prison for allegedly murdering a family in North Israel. Kuntar died in a strike on Damascus a week ago. In both cases, the mourning was impressive among the supporters and there were vows of retaliation against Israel from Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah. However, after Kuntar’s death, Nasrallah said that retaliation will come “at the right time.”  The effect of his first speech was that many supporters of Hezbollah in Lebanon doubted that this retaliation would ever come. After all, Hezbollah has had a hard time avenging Imad Moyghnieh himself after his assassination in Damascus nearly ten years ago. Nasrallah came back on the TV screens having had to stress that retaliation against Israel will come at some point in the future.

In this context, when Hezbollah is dealing with a public relations crisis at home, saving 300 Shiites from Syria’s Idlib and finally securing Zabadani are much needed victories that will certainly give a boost to the supporters’ morale.

The piece was published first in Eurasia Diary.

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10 questions you might have after the #YouStink protests

1.Why did the army shoot at the protesters? This question I was actually able to get an answer for.

There is a military base in Downtown Beirut. You don’t see it easily; it’s well hidden on a little alley between Virgin Megastore and Hotel Le Grey.

Bear with me, I'm not a graphic designer.

Bear with me, I’m not a graphic designer.

The southwestern entrances to the star-shaped Nejmeh Square where the parliament is located are the responsibility of the Parliament Police (yes, the Parliament has its own police force). The checkpoints in the northeastern corner, right across the street from Annahar and Samir Kassir Square, are guarded by the Lebanese Armed forces.

Most protesters in Downtown did not know on Saturday that the military base was there on that alley between Virgin Megastore and the hotel. Pushed by the riot police cold showers and tear gas from Riadh el-Solh, the protesters tried to go into the Nejmeh Square through the back door: the alley between Virgin Megastore and Hotel Le Grey. Only it was not a door, but a dead end.

The troops guarding the entrance to the base reacted violently. The Lebanese soldiers do not have any anti-riot gear. They don’t even have a megaphone to warn people off. They only have their pistols and their M16 rifles and they are ordered to shoot when they feel they’re under attack.  Their orders were to keep civilians away from their base. They could only do so with the equipment they had: their guns.

However, in one of the videos I’ve seen around, at around 0:40, there is a man dressed in a lilac shirt that actually talks to a soldier and then tries to warn the protesters to back off. But nobody knew what was going on and most people thought the soldiers were there to repel them. Also there was a lot of anxiety. So nobody listened to him. And nobody could at that point. Protesters thought the soldiers were there specifically to shoot at them, just like the riot police.

So this leads to question number 2.

2. Why were these soldiers only equipped with their guns? Why didn’t they have any warning gear? And if they are not supposed to have them, why are they there? Martyrs Square is, after all, the place where all protests and demonstrations have been taking place ever since 2005. There is always a chance a manifestation could go crazy.

3. Why is the police force guarding the Nejmeh Square subordinated to the Parliament and not to the Ministry of Interior? It doesn’t make any sense. Why does the Parliament need its own security force? The ISF has a squad  that is responsible with guarding embassies and public institutions. Why is the Parliament special?

4. Who decided to call the Fouhoud [the riot police] and who asked them to use all this anti-riot gear against the protesters on Saturday afternoon? Sure there were some protesters trying to remove the barbed wire. But wasn’t this too much force?

5. Why hasn’t any ISF official made any statement about what happened? We’ve only seen the captain of the squad detached to Riadh el Solh. No other high-ranking official. Why?

6. Why did the riot police decide that in addition to the water cannons and some tear gas grenades, rubber bullets were to be used? Why?

7. How come the Minister of Interior was not informed about all this until 10.15 on Saturday? As far as I know, nobody moves a finger in the ministry without him signing a paper. I can’t get statistics from the press office without his approval. But a big demonstration can be drowned in tear gas and rubber bullets without his knowledge?

8. Why was all this force used on Saturday, but not that much on Sunday? Most of the public property was damaged on Sunday.

9. Who are these people?  They don’t look like a spontaneous crowd.  They look like an organized mob. Fine, this is a rhetoric question. We know who they are and what they were chanting. The question is why did they do this?

I got this from I got Naked. For more visit the page on Facebook.

I got this from I Am Not Naked. For more visit the page on Facebook 

10. Really, how can you believe that the people are that stupid to fall for the same tricks all the time?

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Why the EU gave Lebanon access to 20 member-only programs

The European Union decided last week to grant Lebanon access to 20 programs for member countries. A new protocol was signed last Monday in Brussels by Federica Mogherini, the EU’s high representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and Lebanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Gebran Bassil at the Seventh EU-Lebanon Association Council.  

The Lebanese Foreign Ministry did not disclose details of the protocol, but according to diplomatic sources in Brussels the protocol paves the way for Lebanon to participate in vast EU agencies and programs such as research program Horizon 2020; small and medium enterprises program COSME; culture and media program Creative Europe; and LIFE, the environmental program.

“The opening-up of EU programs and EU agencies forms one of the means of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) to support reform and modernisation in the partner countries, to support administrative and regulatory convergence, and to promote the transfer of EU standards and best practices,” Mogherini told NOW. Lebanon is the 10th country to sign this type of protocol with the EU.  

An older partnership, little progress

Lebanon has had an association agreement with the EU since 2006. The country benefits from EU financial assistance and received EUR 50 million per year from the European Neighborhood and Partnership Instrument (ENPI). The EU policy was replaced by the European Neighborhood Policy last year, a program with a total budget of over EUR 15 billion. The new policy is very good news for Lebanon: the country has received EUR 180 million from the EU, almost four times the sum of recent years. The EU announced another EUR 37 million in humanitarian aid for Beirut at the beginning of February

The EU Neighborhood is based on a “more-for-more” principle: the EU develops partnerships with countries that prove good will and make efforts in democratic governance and develop according to EU principles.

That is why EU diplomats were surprised to hear of the new protocol signed last week with Lebanon, diplomatic sources told NOW. Most countries go through many evaluations and decades of negotiations before signing such agreements with Brussels.

Moreover, according to the latest EU report, Lebanon has made little progress towards a functioning democracy: negotiations for a new electoral law failed, the Parliament only met a few times, there were limitations of freedom of expression, the judiciary is not fully independent, military courts are used to try civilian cases, security and law enforcement sectors need structural reforms, there are no national mechanisms to prevent torture, and no developments in the abolition of the death penalty.

A sense of urgency in the Syrian crisis

Julien Barnes Dacey, senior policy fellow at the European Council for Foreign Relations Middle East & North Africa program, told NOW that “the key driver from the EU perspective is the desire to contain the security, political, and humanitarian crises that derive from the Syrian war.” He also said that immigration is also a part of the equation. “Clearly the EU is not doing much on the refugee front and the way it manages this crisis is to support the host countries,” he said.

The resettlement of the Syrian refugees knocking at the EU’s door has sparked many debates on the continent. Only about four percent of the Syrian refugees have reachedEurope. By mid-2014, European countries, apart from Germany, had agreed to admit only about 6,000 refugees from Syria through resettlement and humanitarian admission programs. Despite appeals by the UNHCR, EU countries have not opened their doors.

At the same time, Lebanon is host to an estimated 2 million Syrian refugees. The country is hosting the largest number of Syrian refugees while dealing with its own political instability. Moreover, the security situation has worsened in the past two years because of Lebanon’s porous borders and deficient security agencies, which have contributed to the rise of radical groups. Lebanon has seen 24 bombings in the past four years, continuous fighting in Tripoli and, more recently, in the eastern Bekaa Valley region of Arsal. 

Lebanese government officials decided last year to curb the influx of Syrian refugees to Lebanon by refusing to renew visas and by closing the borders to Palestinian refugees from Syria. In January 2015, the Lebanese government imposed visa requirements for Syrians. The number of Syrians entering Lebanon has dropped by almost 44%, according to Ninette Kelley, United Nations high commissioner for refugees representative to Lebanon.

It is refugees already present in the country, however, that have motivated most government officials’ complaints of lack of funds with which to accommodate the huge number of displaced people. Among the politicians who opposed most measures to accommodate the refugees in Lebanon was Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil himself. His stances chilled relations with the UNHCR in Lebanon, having said in November 2014: “We are entering a new phase, where cooperation will be according to Lebanon’s policies, and not according to what others decide. Lebanon is the side that decides and makes its policies, and the others have to adapt to them.”

Access to EU money requires transparency 

According to the newly-signed protocol, Lebanon can participate in programs and the country’s representatives can also participate as observers in the decision-making process in the EU agencies. Lebanon is also obliged to contribute financially to the EU programs in order get access, and, if the country receives funds for projects, the government agencies have to work transparently and accept financial control and audits, administrative measures, penalties and recovery measures. Lebanese institutions also have to grant the European Commission, the European Anti-Fraud Office, and the European Court of Auditors powers equivalent to their powers with regard to beneficiaries or contractors established in the Union.

Further conditions Lebanon’s use of external assistance from the EU will be determined in a financing agreement later on. Moreover, the European Commission will have to sign agreements with Lebanese ministries and agencies on what kind of contributions Lebanon should pay to the EU programs as well as on evaluation procedures.

An EU diplomat told NOW on condition of anonymity that the protocol raised some eyebrows among the diplomats familiar with the Lebanese institutions. “It is obvious that the Syrian crisis has led to this and that Brussels wants to strengthen Lebanon in order to bear the burden of the refugees it’s hosting,” the diplomat said. “But it’s also a matter of reliability. The EU can offer Lebanon help; Lebanon can have access to these EU programs. But Brussels also needs to know how the money they give away gets spent. If they can’t have access to how the funds were spent, the money is not going to come.”


Ana Maria Luca tweets @aml1609.


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The tragedy of Douma

douma child“They’re shooting them down like pigeons,” I kept repeating, mainly to myself.

It was about that time when “nothing was happening in Syria,” when everybody loved Bashar al Assad because he was a reformist with a potential of being the father of his nation one day, just like his father, Hafez, had been.

I was coming back from Wadi Khaled, a rural area in North Lebanon, right at the border with Syria. It was end of March 2011and the first refugees from Tal Kalakh, a village next to the Lebanese border, had crossed Nahr al Kabir in the middle of the night. They were women and children, scared out of their minds. So scared that they wouldn’t even come out of the bedroom they had locked themselves in. So scared that they saw Syrian moukhabarat (intelligence) agents everywhere.  So scared that they were shaking while telling of what they had been through. That was just the terror of the regime. There was no war; just a regime that had been killing for 40 years; a regime that had been dragging young men out of their homes to throw them in dungeons. A regime that had shot the men protesting in the streets, gunning them down one by one, indiscriminately, young or old.

“They’re shooting them down like pigeons,” I kept saying.

“You guys come from the West with all this human rights bullshit.  Get a life! You people don’t understand that they just don’t know what a human being is in Syria,” I was told.


When babies are in pain, they usually cry. It’s a distinctive cry, nothing like the cry of hunger or impatience.  It’s a cry that breaks your heart. Babies who are in a great deal of pain – pain that would cause and adult to faint, extreme pain – don’t make a sound. They look at you so serenely, their eyes only penetrating your soul, asking you for help, asking you to save them.

These were the eyes of this little girl in Douma. She must have been around 7-8 months old, peeking over her mother’s shoulder; her big brown eyes piercing with pain and questions, her head broken, her eyebrows arched, two streams of blood coming down from the tip of her head on her forehead, to the corner of her eye and down to her mouth. She wore a tiny dress with a teddy bear and three cute white buttons on her chest.  She wasn’t badly hurt. Not as badly as other people. Doctors were rushing to treat children covered in blood, rescued from the ruble of their houses, with amputated limbs. All photographed by the same man who took the picture of the little girl with the bloody face and her teddy bear and white buttons dress.  A five year old boy in shock lies on a bench while his father, who has a 5 cm hole in his shoulder, gets treated.  They are images one cannot unsee. She was lucky to have survived.

A mother’s eyes are numb with pain; she’s rather absent while she emerges from the rubble of what was her house holding what used to be a little girl with long brown hair.  One of the mother’s eyes is swollen, closed, shut.  Probably hit by a piece of brick when the barrel bomb fell. The other eye is twisted looking down, pointlessly. Her face is splashed with blood from her child’s face that was torn off. She holds a white blanket wrapped around her bloody, faceless child. The woman is not even crying. She’s simply lost.

They were hundreds of pictures one cannot unsee from Douma. If you have the stomach, they’re here , and here, or here. Actually, just go look for #Douma_exterminated on Twitter. It’s endless.

To value or not to value a human being

“They don’t know what a human being is in Syria.”

The words remained with me.  They haven’t been truer than yesterday. That’s when Douma burned. They say 100 people died. They’re probably more.

For the world, it was just another bombing in Syria. There was no Islamic state involved, just the usual “terrorists” from the Army of Islam. The regime media published a few pictures of five or six fighters killed in the strike. They didn’t air any of the dead children. The international media is shy to publish pictures from the massacre for fear they might horrify the public. Bombings and massacres in Syria have become white noise already.

Barrel bombs have nothing special about them. They’re not crucifixions, nor stoning, nor public hanging. There is nothing spectacular in death by a barrel bomb. We wow so easily when it one Jordanian pilot burned alive by a group of psychopaths, but we find it so easy to get over a massacre where hundreds of people were burned alive.

The Douma bombing was not perpetrated by the barbaric, medieval Islamic State, but by a so-called secular regime that the Western world believes is a better option for the regional security. A government that the Western world holds as a possible partner for fighting religious extremism. A regime that has been killing for 40 years, that had trained torturers who have no clue what the value of a human being is, men who would kick you in the stomach while you’re down shouting “There’s no God but Assad!” It’s the regime that practically created the Islamic State and invited Al Qaeda only to show that there can be worse.

There is not better alternative for the dead children in Douma. And the reason is, sadly, not that the Syrian regime doesn’t value human beings; but that the rest of the world doesn’t.

Ana Maria Luca tweets @aml1609.

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The moving labyrinth of Middle Eastern foreign policy: Turkey and Saudi Arabia

Published in NOW on Friday.

Last weekend, the Hazzm Movement, a moderate Syrian insurgent group backed by the US with the logistic help of Saudi Arabia, joinedthe Turkey-backed Levant Front (Jabhat al-Shamiah) Islamist coalition, which is based in Aleppo. The move came after the Hazzm Movement faced increased military pressure from jihadist groups Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham in northern Syria during a war in Idlib that started in the fall of 2014.

“We ask our brothers in all other factions to resolve their disagreements with the movement through the leadership of the Levant Front,” a statement of the coalition read, as the group assumed the role of mediator between the secular group and jihadist fighters.

The Turkish government has recently made several moves that indicate a desire to warm its relations with Saudi Arabia, among which was the Turkish president’s presence at Saudi King Abdallah’s funeral. Some Syrian opposition members are supportive of these moves. Analysts acknowledge that Turkey dances on a shoestring when it comes to its foreign policy, though others don’t see in these efforts a necessary change in the relationship between Riyadh and Ankara. 

Saudi Arabia’s Syria policy shift in 2014

When Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy on Syria changed radically early last year, Prince Bandar al Sultan, who actively backed Syrian rebel factions by sending weapons and supplies, was replaced by Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. The latter played more by Western — particularly America’s — rules. Nayef started a crackdown on Saudi jihadists traveling to Syria and participated in the air strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq. Under his line of foreign policy towards Syria, Saudi Arabia was one of the countries the US administration called on to help train moderate Syrian rebel groups. When the United Nations ran out of money for aid at the end of last year, the Saudi government donated $5 million to the World Food Programme. It also reportedly equipped Hazzm brigades with TOW anti-tank missiles.

Moreover, the shift in foreign policy was visible in Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Qatar: in March 2014, Riyadh withdrew its envoy from Doha together with other Gulf Cooperation Council countries and threatened a blockade unless Qatar toned down its support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria.

Turkey’s foreign policy double standards

It’s been Ankara’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria that has kept its relationship with Riyadh quite cold. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has found shelter in Ankara and Istanbul since the beginning of the Syrian uprising. Turkey supported the Muslim Brothers and Mohammad Morsi’s presidential tenure in Egypt, too, to the discontent of Saudi Arabia. When Saudi Arabia rejoiced at the fall of Morsi and the rise of Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, Turkey was disconsolate.

Moreover, when Qatar hinted that the Muslim Brothers were not as welcome in Doha as they had been — extending even to Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal — the Brotherhood looked for help in Turkey. Meshaal was received very well by Turkish leaders, which raised concerns in Washington. Jen Psaki, US State Department spokesperson said at the time: “We continue to raise our concerns about the relationship between Hamas and Turkey with senior Turkish officials, including after learning of Mashaal’s recent visit there. And we have urged the government of Turkey to press Hamas to reduce tensions and prevent violence.” Riyadh viewed Meshaal’s visit to Turkey the same way.

But when Saudi King Abdullah’s death was announced, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan suspended his tour of Africa to attend the funeral. Turkey even declared a day of mourning.

Erdogan said his presence at the king’s funeral was meant to show the importance the Turkish government gave the nations’ relations. “There are topics that we agree on. On Egypt, as well as on Syria and Palestine, there are issues where we don’t see eye to eye. We don’t want such differences to cloud bilateral ties,” he said, prompting analysts to expect a “new page in the relationship with Saudi Arabia.”

Marc Pierini, visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, told NOW that it is only natural for Turkey to carefully choose its stances given its special status in the region. “Clearly there has been a change in the dynamics in the Middle East and it seems that Qatar is now taking a more prudent approach with Islamist movements and taking a different stand on Egypt,” he said. “Turkey is definitely in a specific position given its membership in NATO and its status of negotiating country with the EU. What makes up Turkey’s strong security environment is NATO and what drives its economy [exports, investments, technology] is the EU. Turkey has been deriving major benefits from these two affiliations — NATO and the EU — and it would be very risky to put these benefits in jeopardy with foreign policy choices in contradiction with these fundamental ‘anchors.’”

On the Syrian front

Oytun Orhan, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies in Turkey, told NOW that Ankara has to adapt to the rapidly changing situation on the ground in Syria while remaining consistent with its initial stance — regime change in Syria. “Turkey is one of the countries that didn’t make any critical changes in its foreign policy towards the Syrian conflict, although there is the immediate threat,” Orhan said. “Turkey perceives ISIS as a direct threat. Turkey is a direct, immediate target. ISIS controls a very important part of the border — some terrorist attacks happened on Turkish soil. The Turkish military also bombed ISIS,” he added. “But Turkey has a more comprehensive policy. For Ankara, ISIS is the result, not the reason. The Assad regime is the reason. The Turkish take is that there are changes in the regime in Damascus that need to be made; it’s not just a war against ISIS. In that context, Turkey is always in contact with the Syrian Coalition — it supports the political opposition.”

In Syria, says, Orhan, the devil is in the details. “From the political aspect, in general, Saudi Arabia and Turkey might be on the same side, but on the ground they compete. In the military field, for example, each country supports different groups. I don’t see a real cooperation on the ground.”

A Syrian opposition activist based in Turkey told NOW that the Hazzm Movement’s fusion with the Levant Front might not mean much at the diplomatic level. “It’s not clear yet, but I think this merger was done by the people on the ground because of the situation on the field,” he said. “They were tired of fighting each other. The regime was taking advantage of this. It has nothing to do with what Turkey wants or what Saudi Arabia wants.”

Ana Maria Luca tweets @aml1609.

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Syria’s nuclear powers II

A fool throws a rock in a pond and ten thousands wise men struggle to get it out. That’s what happened after a Der Spiegel report on how Syria might have such a well hidden nuclear facility next to the Lebanese borders, that nobody ever noticed. The original is here.

An inaccessible mountain region in an area strictly controlled by Hezbollah at the border with Lebanon, a mysterious construction visible from satellite, and an alleged intercepted conversation between Hezbollah and Syrian officials talking about a certain “atomic factory” called Zamzam, after a mythical Old Testament legend. Intelligence reports quoted by Der Spiegel found that it was the probable location of an alleged nuclear facility belonging to the Syrian government and administered with help from Iran and Hezbollah.

Der Spiegel, quoting intelligence reports, reported that the alleged plant was two kilometers from the Lebanese border, deep underground, near the town of Qusayr and has access to electricity and water supply. According to the report, satellite images show six structures that conceal entrances to the facility and that the site has special access to Syria’s power grid.

The possibility that Damascus might have hidden nuclear ambitions like its ally Iran has long been the concern of intelligence agencies and international organizations, especially after the Israeli Air Force bombed the Al-Kibar facility in September 2007. Back then, the UN nuclear watchdog investigation concluded that the bombed location was indeed meant for nuclear purposes. Since then, several reports released by intelligence agencies and some international think tanks have pointed to several other locations in Syria that might have been connected to the Al-Kibar site. Some, it was reported, might have contained the nuclear fuel meant for Al-Kibar. Elsewhere it was reported that the fuel had been transferred to Iran.

The new report says that approximately 8,000 fuel rods are stored at the recently discovered location. Furthermore, a new reactor or an enrichment facility has very likely been built at the site — a development of incalculable geopolitical consequences.” Syria has denied pursuing a military nuclear program and many experts don’t believe such a thing could be feasible at the location noted in the Der Spiegel report.

“It would be absolutely crazy to build such a strategic nuclear facility in an area that is out of their control, so close to Lebanon, especially after what happened in the past few years,” Robert Kelley, a former director at the International Atomic Energy Agency, told NOW. “A facility like that, a reactor or an enrichment plant, would cost at least $100 million. Each one of them requires a lot of special equipment: they need very specialized valves for both types of facilities, very specialized pumps, a lot of stainless steel, a cooling system — the well connected to a lake made no sense whatsoever.”

In order to build an underground enrichment plant or a reactor, the Syrian government would have had to excavate a large area, move heavy equipment and transport personnel. It would also need to build a large underground structure around the facility and watch for corrosion.  

According to scientific publications, though, it is possible to build a buried mini-reactor. In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, Singaporewas looking into the idea, which is to bury a small reactor in a shallow layer of bedrock, perhaps 30-50 meters underground. Granite can provide natural containment. But even this technology is very expensive and only very small reactors would be cost-effective. More to the point, the two companies developing the technology are years away from implementation.

A more interesting location nearby

Kelley believes that any information published on a topic as sensitive as Syrian nuclear activities needs to be studied for at least “a solid two minutes,” and he’s read in to the new information.

“The Spiegel place looks like missile storage. I don’t see any chance of it being a reactor or enrichment plant,” he said. But Kelley also said that it was worth looking around the location, noting a group of buildings located at around one kilometer away that he finds even more interesting.

On satellite maps, the location Der Spiegel  reported is connected by a barely-visible, unpaved road to the second location. But the group of buildings, which have been there for quite a while, are primarily accessible via a recently-paved road from Lebanon. Over the border, the road coming from the facility in Syria stops on the outskirts of Qasr, a Hezbollah-controlled area in Hermel.

The area was the scene of intense fighting between the Free Syrian Army and Hezbollah in spring 2013. Free Syrian Army brigades shelled Lebanon’s Qasr several times from the mountains across the border. Back then, Hezbollah was involved in fierce fighting with rebel brigades in the Homs area, and the shelling of Qasr took place right before the battle of Qusayr.

This is not the only indication that Hezbollah has a strategic military position in the are around Qasr and across the border. A reportpublished by Shia Watch also noted a heavy Hezbollah military presence in the area. “ShiaWatch has learned firsthand that the village of Hosh as-Sayyed Ali, located adjacent to the Lebanese village of Qasr, has become a veritable parking lot for artillery and other weapons trained on the Syrian rebels. Notably, all television and media outlets have ignored the developing situation in this region, instead turning their attention to the Sunni-dominated border region of Arsal. It seems that “certain authorities” have forbidden media representatives to file any informative reports from there, a tactic Hezbollah also employs in the south and in Beirut’s Dahiyeh suburbs,” the report reads.

Nuclear or military?

Syrian rebel sources from Qusair told NOW spoke to were long aware that Hezbollah has a facility in that region but they didn’t really think that its nature was nuclear. Now, after the recent reports, they have doubts.

“We just know that Hezbollah has weapons and other ammunition storage places in the area,” a Syrian activist told NOW, on condition of anonymity. “I am not an expert in nuclear facilities, but I imagine they would need much more than this. If there was anything like this in the area, people would talk,” he said. He also said that Syrian rebel brigades in the area noticed a lot of security, both Iranian and Hezbollah, in the region across the border from Qasr. However, he said, there is absolutely no proof that it’s evidence of a nuclear facility and not a military camp. “Hezbollah has underground facilities like this in the south of Lebanon where the fighters take shelter and train. They used to have them during the war with Israel. In any case, they do have something there, I’m convinced,” he said.

Another Syrian activist, who also requested anonymity for security reasons, said that the presence of a hidden nuclear facility in the area would help the case of the Syrian uprising and might convince the West to intervene in the war. “I wish this was true, but, in fact I have no idea,” he said. “But it’s already beyond the point to look for such excuses to remove Bashar Assad from power, when people die every day by conventional weapons.”

Kassem Kassir, an independent journalist who focuses on Hezbollah’s political and military evolution, said that the new report, whether true or not, is probably an effort to connect the Syrian and Iranian nuclear activities at a time when international negotiations with Iran are at an impasse. But he doubts that Hezbollah would get involved in nuclear activities.

“By trying to have nuclear facilities, Iran is trying to create a certain power in the region,” he said. “Hezbollah does not have the same interest. If the party had access to nuclear power, where would it use it? Hezbollah is more interested in having traditional weapons and rockets that serve the war the party is in. Hezbollah’s priorities are somewhere else; it’s more interested in traditional weapons, the security situation, the Syrian war, etc., not nuclear weapons.”

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Syria’s nuclear powers

This is an ongoing investigation of mine. It’s an interesting file at the IAEA, open after the 2007 Israeli bombing of Al Kibar alleged nuclear reactor. It’s a very long story, but its’ worth reading. The Syrian nuclear file comes back in the media attention usually when Iran and the P5+1 are close to an agreement. But there was never solid proof to incriminate Syria.  The original was published here.

Five nuclear engineers were assassinated last week in a mysterious attack just north of the Syrian capital, Damascus. According to theSyrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based NGO that monitors the crisis in Syria, one of the victims gunned down when their car was ambushed was Iranian.


Syrian pro-regime Al-Watan newspaper confirmed the attack, but made no mention of an Iranian national being killed, counting only four victims and blaming Jabhat al-Nusra for the killings. However, Iranian-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah, which is also involved in fighting against rebels in Syria, accused the Israeli intelligence of the assassination, without denying the presence of the Iranian scientist among the victims.

Al-Watan wrote that the operation had been carried out on the Tal-Barzeh road while the engineers were on their way to the scientific research center in Barzeh, where they worked.

The assassination is the latest of a series of events and rumors linked to Syria’s nuclear program. Officially, the research center in Barzeh is Syria’s only declared nuclear center, the host of a miniature neutron source reactor developed with Chinese help beginning in 1991.  

But in September 2007, the Israeli Air Force bombed and destroyed a building in northwestern Syria that US and Israeli intelligence officials claimed was a plutonium-processing site. The Al-Kibar reactor, in Deir Ezzor Province, was completely wiped out. The Syrian government denied all accusations, but the bombing had already opened a Pandora’s box.

Investigation of the Al-Kibar site

In 2008, the IAEA Board of Directors travelled to the Deir Ezzor site to verify allegations that Syria had been building a nuclear facility with North Korean help. The investigation concluded in 2008 with the verdict that there were strong indications that it was probably a nuclear facility being built, but that it wasn’t operational at the time of the airstrike. The inspectors found traces and particles of anthropogenic natural uranium in samples taken from the site. The Syrian government blamed this on the Israeli missiles that destroyed the building. The samples were, therefore, inconclusive, though one of the reasons for this may be that, according to investigators, the site had been covered over in asphalt and a great deal of intervening time could have allowed evidence to be tampered with or otherwise concealed.

The UN agency reportalso mentions that there were three other locations linked to the bombed facility in Deir Ezzor that the Syrian government kept hidden from international eyes. In September 2011, an IAEA delegation traveled to Damascus to negotiate terms for another inspection of the Deir Ezzor site as well as these additional locations, but the Syrian government refused to give the inspectors access. No deal was reached.

“To date, the Agency has not received any such response from Syria on information to resolve outstanding questions regarding the [Deir Ezzor] site and the three other locations,” reads the most recent UN report. In 2011, after three years of investigation, the IAEA found Syria in noncompliance with its obligations under its Safeguards Agreement and referred the country to the UN Security Council. But the move came at the same time that a draft resolution condemning Syria’s crackdown on protesters was being proffered, which Russia subsequently vetoed. The nuclear issue was sidelined and nearly forgotten.

A mysterious facility in Marj al-Sultan

The town of Marj al-Sultan, located 15 kilometers east of Damascus in the suburb of Al-Ghouta, hosts an important heliport for Syrian Army Mi-8 helicopters. In the Fall of 2012, Marj al-Sultan was the theater of fierce fighting between the Syrian Army and rebel deserters. The rebels, from the Free Syrian Army, took control of the military base in November 2012.

But there was another location in Marj al-Sultan — an apparent weapons storage facility — where fighting was also intense.  The Syrian Army had built it at the end of 2011, clearing an orchard to do so. Syrian activist sources told NOW that the facility was attacked, but that the attackers weren’t able to get beyond its reinforcements. Rebel sources told NOW that they remember the fighting, but had no inkling of a nuclear facility in the area. They assumed it was a weapons depot.

A month later, Financial Times and several other media outletspublished information leaked by Western and Israeli diplomats that identified the facility as the most probable location where the Syrian government might have stored 50 tons of enriched uranium meant to fuel the bombed reactor in Deir Ezzor.

A February 2011 study by the US-based Institute for Science and International Security identified Marj al-Sultan as one of the three sites linked by UN inspectors to the Al-Kibar site. The study doesn’t indicate which of the three sites might have held the uranium, although Marj al-Sultan is the only location still under government control. The sites in the Hama and Homs regions are under Nusra Front and Islamic State (ISIS) control.

Syria never responded to the UN’s call for another inspection of the Deir Ezzor location or the others. “Since the Director General’s report of 28 August 2013, no new information has come to the knowledge of the Agency that [the Deir Ezzor] site was a nuclear reactor that should have been declared to the Agency by Syria. Concerning the three other locations, the Agency remains unable to provide any assessment concerning their nature or operational status,” the report of the investigation read.

A political bargaining chip for Damascus

There was never any official confirmation of the existence and storage of any nuclear fuel in Syria, says Mark Hibbs, a Berlin-based senior associate of the Carnegie Nuclear Policy Program. “There is really no hard evidence. The samples from the reactor site have led to questions over the forensic detail about the uranium. There are people suggesting that forensic data was inconclusive because there might have been cross-contamination involved,” Hibbs told NOW. “What we know is that there are statements from the agency that the IAEA is confident that the installation destroyed by Israel was a nuclear reactor. But the detail of how the fuel supply was arranged is not clear.”

The fact that the international agencies are still unsure whether Syria had a nuclear program and whether it still holds an amount of nuclear fuel or not, however, might actually be to the Syrian regime’s advantage. Not knowing much about it is very troubling, says Hibbs. “The fuel [50 tons] would be a considerable lot of uranium and with Iran in the background there is always the concern that the fuel might have been moved to Iran. That’s important because of the negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran, involving the IAEA. They have to make sure, in a comprehensive deal negotiated with Iran, that they have a good estimate of how much uranium Iran has.”

Hibbs also said that initially, Syrian nuclear activity was related to North Korea. It was only recently that the Iranian link was added, through reports that Syria might be involved in Iranian fuel processing. The link is further suggested by the presence of the Iranian engineer among the victims of the ambush last week.

In September 2014, a Russian delegation to the IAEA tried to remove the Syrian issue from the UN’s agenda. It failed, with most countries voting to keep the investigation ongoing.

Maintaining a shroud of mystery over an alleged nuclear program might also be used by the Syrian regime as a bargaining chip in its international relations. “Politically, people at the IAEA will tell you that they have no confidence whatsoever in the current political situation in the Middle East; that they are never going to get anywhere,” Hibbs said. “They rely on the government of Syria to permit access to the field. And there is no indication that [Bashar Assad] would permit them to do that unless there was going to be some kind of an agreement between Assad and the world powers to ensure the survival of the regime.”

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