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.

Posted in Foriegn Policy, Syria | Tagged , , ,

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.”

Posted in Syria | Tagged , , , ,

Hezbollah’s intelligence war with Israel

The original report here.

Hezbollah retaliated last Wednesday for the Israeli attack on the Golan Heights that killed six Hezbollah members — including Imad Moughnieh’s son, Jihad — and six Iranian Revolutionary Guards. However, with Wednesday’s exchange of fire in the Shebaa Farms, which left at least three Israeli soldiers dead and several wounded, Hezbollah reportedly sent a message to the Israeli government saying that the group would stop the border attacks.

According to analysts in Beirut, neither Israel nor Hezbollah are interested in starting a full-fledged war at home. But the Party of God and the Mossad have been fighting another war, away from the disputed Shebaa Farms, but equally intense.

After the death of former military commander Imad Moughnieh in February 2008 in Damascus, Hezbollah vowed to avenge his death.  The Israeli intelligence services as well as several Western security agencies attributed several attacks and foiled plots on Israeli and Jewish objectives around the world to Hezbollah and its Iranian sponsor. The recent uncovering of a Mossad spy in the high ranking structures of Hezbollah also shed some light into the party’s efforts to avenge Moughnieh. According to reports, it was the spy inside Hezbollah who tipped off Israeli intelligence to the party’s plots in several countries.

Hezbollah has denied its involvement in several of these plots.  Several investigations have obvious gaps and most of the time it was the Mossad that pointed to the possible plots. But some of the arrested perpetrators, as well as some of the evidence found on them, indicated that they were sent on missions by their Hezbollah commanders.

Syria – February 2008 / January 2015

Imad Moughnieh, Hezbollah’s military commander, wanted by Interpol in connection with the 1994 Buenos Aires Jewish Center bombing, is killed in a bombing on the outskirts of Damascus. His body was reportedly never retrieved from the scorched car. Hezbollah accused Israel of assassinating him and vowed to avenge him.

In January of this year, US security sources leak to the Washington Postthat it was the CIA in cooperation with the Mossad that assassinated Moughnieh in 2008.

Azerbaijan – May 2008

Police in Baku intercepted a car filled with explosives, cameras, surveillance equipment, pistols, and reconnaissance photos of the Israeli Embassy in Azerbaijan. Two Lebanese men were arrested: Ali Karaki, reportedly a veteran of Hezbollah’s external operations unit at the time; and explosives expert Ali Najmeddine. Pictures of the suspects were never released.

Their trial took place at the beginning of 2009 but was kept behind closed doors. According to information released to the media by police and quoted in several newspapers, the two Hezbollah members traveled back and forth from Lebanon to Azerbaijan and neighboring Iran using Iranian passports.

According to an article published in the LA Times, the suspects had planned to place three or four car bombs around the Israeli Embassy and to set them off simultaneously. The Azeri police also found hundreds of pounds of explosives. Both men were sentenced to 15 years in prison after Najmeddine admitted in court that he was a Hezbollah member, had fought the IDF in the July 2006 War, and that he had been sent to Iran and then to Azerbaijan with a mission to collect information of the Israeli Embassy in Baku. Despite the sentence, both men were released in 2010 and deported to Lebanon. The reasons were never made public.

Egypt – April 2009

Egyptian authorities arrested 49 men and accused them of planning attacks on Israeli and Egyptian targets in the Sinai Peninsula in the name of Hezbollah and with the alleged help of the Muslim Brotherhood. The men allegedly planned several attacks in Taba, a resort popular among Israeli tourists.  

An Egyptian court convicted 26 men, four in absentia, and sentenced them variously to prison and hard labor. Sami Shihab, whom Hezbollah confirmed was a member, was given a life sentence. Hezbollahannounced in 2011 that Shihab had escaped from prison and returned to Lebanon in February of that year, during the anti-Mubarak protests.

Turkey – November 2009

Turkish intelligence foiled in 2009 an alleged plot to attack Jewish and Israeli targets, such as an Israeli airliner and Jewish community centers, in Istanbul. According to Haaretz, Hezbollah had set up a network of Iranian agents posing as tourists in Istanbul. There is no information pertaining to any arrests.  

Thailand – January 2012

Hussein Atris, a 47-year-old Shiite- Lebanese businessman with Swedish citizenship, was arrested for immigration reasons at Bangkok’s international airport on 12 January 2012 and charged with terrorism. After interrogating him, Thai police also announced they had seized four tons of fertilizer used in bomb making from a storage facility he had rented in Bangkok. Just after Atris’s arrest, police announced they were also looking for his business partner. Thai authorities linked both men to Hezbollah.

Hezbollah politburo member Ghaleb Abu Zainab deniedthat Atris had any connection with the party. Atris also deniedlinks to Hezbollah. He was sentenced to 32 months in prison.

India and Georgia – February 2012

A bomb attached by a motorcyclist to an Israeli Embassy car transporting a diplomat’s wife wounded her, the driver and two passers-by on 13 February 2012. Another bomb planted at the same time in a diplomatic car of the Israeli Embassy in Tbilisi, Georgia, failed to detonate.

The Israeli government immediately accused Iran and Hezbollah for the attacks; both denied involvement.

Police in Delhi arrested a journalist who worked for an Iranian press agency and who said he had cased the Israeli Embassy there. In July 2012, The Times of India reported that Delhi Police had concluded that “terrorists belonging to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards,” were responsible for the attack.

According to an Israeli analyst interviewed by Time magazine, “they put the bomb on the right side of the car, because it had to explode on the fuel tank. But in India they ride on the left side, and the tank is on the left side.”

Azerbaijan – January 2012

The shadow war between Hezbollah, Iran and Israel moved once again to Azerbaijan in January 2012. Azeri state TV announced that police had arrested an “unspecified number of people linked to Iran and Lebanese militant group Hezbollah,” suspected of planning attacks in the country, according to an Al Arabiya report. A month prior, authorities in Baku had arrested two men with alleged links to Iranian intelligence on suspicion of plotting to kill prominent Israelis in Azerbaijan.

Cyprus – July 2012

Swedish-Lebanese Houssam Taleb Yaacoub, 24, was arrested in July 2012, tried for associating with a criminal organization (Hezbollah) and criminal intent, and sentenced to four years in prison in Cyprus. Yaacoub was caught by police while casing Kosher restaurants, hotels and the Larnaca airport. Yaacoub told Cypriot police that he was hired by a Hezbollah liaison who called himself “Ayman” but never disclosed his real name. The young Lebanese was being paid $800 per month to use his Swedish passport, travel across Europe, deliver mysterious packages without checking their content and to canvas security locations and Israeli tourist hangouts in Cyprus and Turkey.

The same elements would be found two years later in Peru, where another Hezbollah member was arrested on suspicion of planning an attack.

Bulgaria – July 2012

Two weeks after Yaacoub was arrested in Cyprus, on 18 July 2012, a bus with Israeli tourists blew up in the tiny summer resort of Burgas, on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast. The bomber died in the attack. Israeli and US intelligence immediately pointed at Hezbollah.

In July 2013, Bulgarian authorities released photos of two other suspects; both Hezbollah operatives with dual citizenship. Australian-Lebanese citizen Milad Farah and Canadian-Lebanese Hassan al-Hajj allegedly planned the bombing. They are believed to be in Lebanon and the Bulgarian government requested their extradition. Prosecutors said the third suspect, the bomber, alsoLebanese, was killed from a distance.  

According to media reports, Israeli intelligence was tipped off by its sources inside Hezbollah that an attack was being planned in Bulgaria, but decided to sacrifice the civilians in order to protect a well-placed spy.

Lebanon – December 2013

Hassan al-Lakkis was assassinated in front of his house the southern suburbs of Beirut.  Hezbollah accused Israel, saying that Laqqis had survived several other assassination attempts.

Yigal Palmor, Israeli foreign ministry spokesman, denied Israeli involvement — a rarity in the country’s diplomacy. Two Sunni extremist groups, the Free Sunnis of Baalbek and Battalion of the Muslim Umma,claimed responsibility.

Thailand – April 2014

French-Lebanese Daoud Farhat and Filipino-Lebanese Youssef Ayad were arrested on 13 April 2014 in Bangkok after Thai police received intelligence from Israel about a planned plot targeting Israeli tourists.

Ayad reportedly admitted that he was a Hezbollah operative and had entered Thailand to carry out a bomb attack against Israeli tourists during the Passover holiday. However, two months later, Thai authorities were still holding the two suspects on immigration charges because they couldn’t gather enough evidence to convict the pair. It is not clear whether they were later deported to Lebanon.

Peru – October 2014

On 28 October, Peruvian police raided an apartment in Lima and arrested a 28-year-old Lebanese man with a passport from Sierra Leone. Mohammad Ghaleb Hamdar, born in 1986 in Haret Hreik, admitted being employed by Hezbollah, that his handler had told him to marry his Peruvian girlfriend in order to get a residency permit, and had given him a fake identity and fake documents.

Hamdar is now in detention in Lima and awaits trial after an investigation of more than one year.

Lebanon – December 2014

Hezbollah uncovered and arrested a top official who allegedly spied for the Mossad and sabotaged all anti-Israeli operations abroad. Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah acknowledged the existence of the spy for the first time in January in an interview with Al Mayadeen TV station.


Ana Maria Luca tweets @aml1609

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Nasrallah’s tight shoes

My piece on NOW Blog after the recent clashed between Hezbollah and the IDF in South Lebanon. The original posting is here.

I wouldn’t want to be in Hassan Nasrallah’s shoes right now— it’s obvious that they’re getting tight and uncomfortable.

His latest speech was a victory speech, but it came after a compromise. Last week’s attack against an Israeli military convoy near the Shebaa Farms, in retaliation for the Quneitra attack, was obviously a small scale operation to pacify Hezbollah’s enraged supporters and gave them a reason to shoot in the air. It was something that had to be done after the death of Jihad Moughnieh, whom the Party and Qassem Soleimani were training to follow in his father’s footsteps.

Two Israeli soldiers were killed, Hezbollah and the Israeli forces exchanged fire for a couple of hours, and then, when it seemed like things were about to blow out of proportion and people feared another war would break out, Hezbollah sends a letter to UNIFIL asking the peacekeepers to tell Israel: “This was it. No more rockets. We don’t want war.” It kind of beats the purpose, doesn’t it? It feels like Hezbollah and Israel are engaged in this 100 year war in the 21st century: they fight for a bit, and then they stop fighting on rainy days, during heat waves, holidays, birthdays, commemorations, etc.

It’s Hezbollah’s covert war with Israel that is much more interesting.

There is a whole generation of politicians who tried to build up a political entity [sic] on the fundaments of the anti-Israeli Islamic Resistance notion, and who have tried to shake off the reputation that was based on the attack on the US Army barracks in Beirut and the Buenos Aires AMIA bombing. Hezbollah wanted to be much more than just a resistance movement: they wanted to govern.

Hezbollah did not behave like a terrorist organization for a long time, and tried to shake off the “terrorism” reputation. It mimicked the behavior of statelets: a skilled political faction within Lebanon that governed over its community with an iron fist; with its own foreign policies and economic strategies; and, of course, its own intelligence and military apparatus.

Its intelligence operations outside of Lebanon, even the successful ones, were never claimed by the group. It seems handy to be able to fight your arch-enemy on foreign soil, without claiming the responsibility. On the one hand, the rest of the world will always doubt whether they were ever involved, while the people who are supposed to get the message actually get it.

This has been Hezbollah’s real victory actually: for years, both the US and Israel struggled to convince the European Union (EU) to list Hezbollah as a terrorist organization and, and when the EU finally did, it wasn’t really what Washington and Tel Aviv wanted. Hezbollah’s supporters are still able to raise funding in Europe and are still able to use their passports to carry out covert operations.

There was no use admitting “we did it.” It wasn’t the type of reputation it needed, especially when its strategy to strengthen its economy included connecting with the Lebanese diaspora in Europe, South America and Southeast Asia.

This is what Hezbollah was like until 2012, when it got sucked into the Syrian war. It was obvious even to the profane that there were differences between the military and the politicians on whether to get involved in Syria and, later, on whether to make it public or not. The changes in internal political discourse were difficult to swallow; the numerous coffins returning from Syria were even more difficult to accept. The bombs that rocked Beirut’s southern suburbs did not make things better.

The deaths of so many experienced military commanders in Syria also lead many young, barely-trained men to join the ranks. Less trained also means less disciplined. Hezbollah used to be very selective when it recruited members. After it became involved in the Syrian war, they couldn’t afford to be selective anymore. Nor did they have the time to train the new recruits, who were desperate to go to war and earn a living. But many times, that can complicate things at a political level.

The shoes are getting tighter. There is no comfortable way to balance all these causes. Facing an army like Israel’s is out of the question right now. That war has been put aside until further notice. Until recently, targeting Israeli targets on foreign soil seemed like the only way for Hezbollah to strike back and avenge its military commander Imad Moughnieh, who was assassinated in Damascus in 2008, and his son who died in an Israeli strike on the Golan Heights.

But the latest developments have put Hezbollah in a difficult position. When Hezbollah uncovered a Mossad spy, reportedly in charge of the Party of God’s covert operations, the group managed to keep it from the public for a few months. But Israeli security sources informed the press that it was that particular spy who tipped off the Mossad on all of Hezbollah’s covert operations against Israeli targets across the globe. Hezbollah did not deny the reports, and Nasrallah himself acknowledged the affair. But the bigger damage now was that the whole world knew about it. Just in case there were countries that still doubted that Hezbollah carried out secret operations on foreign soils.

Since the news that the Mossad spy foiled several Hezbollah plots abroad, many countries began to toughen up their security and started gathering more intelligence on Hezbollah. It had become obvious that, at least for a while, these covert operations couldn’t work.

But when US security sources leaked to the press that it was the CIA in cooperation with the Mossad were behind Imad Moughnieh’s assassination in 2008, Hezbollah did not have a choice anymore. It’s not like Hezbollah didn’t know who killed Moughnieh. But now, that it has been made public, the Party can’t just sit around waiting. If it’s an “eye of an eye,” then Hezbollah has to strike back.

But how? The choices are few. The Party of God can’t sit around waiting for the IDF to gun down or bomb all its high ranking members in Syria. Hezbollah can’t afford to fight Israel in a direct confrontation either. They made it clear when they had the chance to escalate the missile incident but chose to send the letter instead. Hezbollah also can’t afford to send suicide bombers or covert ops teams to attack Israel’s embassies and diplomats. That would close many doors that it has struggled for years, in spite of a strong Israeli lobby, to keep open for the sake of its business interests. Hezbollah is also in financial trouble; the young men in Syria need to be paid. Iran is busy negotiating a deal with the US. Some formerly friendly countries in South America are also changing their foreign policy. All that’s left is West Africa, where the weak states and corrupt governments still allow fundraising and business activities.

Which way to go? Strike back and be labeled a terrorist organization again? Keep it quiet and deny your raison d’etre? I wouldn’t want to be in Nasrallah’s shoes right now; they’re very tight.
Ana Maria Luca tweets @aml1609.

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Don’t turn Hezbollah into a victim

Bulgaria is getting ready to finalize the investigation in last year’s Burgas bombing which killed Israeli tourists in the Burgas resort on the Black Sea shore. The matter will be discussed in the meeting of the Bulgarian National Security Council on January 22, when the investigation is supposed to be concluded.

Israel is determined to blame it on Hezbollah and its arch foe Iran, although the Bulgarian government refused to give in and said there is no actual proof to incriminate the Lebanese group.  The Israeli elections are scheduled for January 22. Incriminating Hezbollah for the bombing in Burgas would bring Netanyahu the glory he wants.

The US, which has been trying to convince the European Union to label the Party of God as a terror organization, also puts pressure on Bulgaria. Having the proof that Hezbollah is responsible for the Burgas bombing, right in the EU’s back yard, would be the final argument to convince Brussels.

Bulgaria is a small country in the Balkans, EU member since 2007, but monitored by the European Commission for its lack of law enforcement and organized crime problem. It also has a strong pro-American foreign policy, as all the Eastern European countries after the collapse of the Soviet bloc. It’s very likely that they comply with the pressures, experts told NOW for a piece that  published on NOW English this afternoon.

However, the last time when Hezbollah’s involvement into a terror attack was in Argentine in 1996. Since then, the Party of God changed its ways and although many Israeli governments have tried to incriminate it in several terror attacks around the globe, they could not come up with any valid proof. Analysts and politicians, be they even rivals of Hezbollah in Lebanon, will tell you over a coffee that those times are long gone, and that in the last 10 years Hezbollah’s efforts were more focused on the political side, on gaining legitimacy as a political entity. The efforts were, of course, supported by building a business empire in West Africa, South America and South East Asia. This is where the Drug Enforcement Agency had a lot of work to do in the US, dismantling many groups specialized in money laundering, drug smuggling and car parts dealing that had connections to top Hezbollah officials.

Guys, if you really want Hezbollah blacklisted in Europe so badly, get down to work and bring some valid proof. The Party of God has long ceased to be the Resistance it once was, and although it comes out with a high degree of self-righteousness, its ranks have been infiltrated by people with a lust for money. The ideology and the rhetoric might be the same, but the people have changed. But accusing Hezbollah of blowing up a bus in Bulgaria with no valid proof will turn it into a victim. 

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Saudi Arabia and its women’s rights spree

I couldn’t figure it out until saw this press release from the UN saying how the “United Nations Special Rapporteurs on summary executions, torture and migrants expressed outrage at the beheading on 9 January of Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan domestic worker charged with murder of a baby in her care in 2005 when she was reportedly 17 years old.”

More on the story here.Image

(Photo via Al Jazeera)

Apart form the fact that I barely saw it discussed in the Lebanese media – it was just a short news story for most newspapers in Beirut, while some international channels like CNN had long special reports and extensive coverage of the whole incident. Would it be because she was “just” a maid? – it was soon replaced by reports praising the king and his open mindedness.

Two days after the execution the king named 30 women in the Shura Council and the world can’t stop cheering. Great trap, but Saudi Arabia has overdone it.

The 30 women – check out the list – are two princesses and 28 PhD graduates.  Is this for real? Do all men in the Shura Council have PhDs? Does a woman have to prove she’s smarter than a man in order to get recognition? Does a woman have to get a PhD in order to be able to enter the Shura Council through a separate entrance and sit in a separate section so that the male members wouldn’t get a hard-on? It still sounds lime discrimination to me.


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