Israel and Lebanon’s Hizbullah, who fought a war in 2006, are increasingly being drawn into a proxy war in Lebanon. Hizbullah supports the Baath regime of Bashar al-Assad. The Israeli government, after a long period of neutrality, seems increasingly to have decided that the Baath must go. Israel on Sunday bombed what it said were trucks transporting missiles from Syria to Lebanon:
Meanwhile, Hizbullah stands accused of increasing its military support of the Syrian regime. It is not that the Israelis and Hizbullah are in any direct conflict, but they are gradually both becoming more active in Syria on opposite sides. It is an open question how long this process can continue before the conflict does become direct. Hizbullah fears that if it loses its Syrian land bridge with Iran, it will lose the possibility of rocket resupply. Then, its leaders fear, the Israelis will be able again to invade and annex southern Lebanon, stealing the land, water and resources of its Shiites. (Israel planned on doing to southern Lebanon what it has done to the West Bank, occupying it 1982-2000, but Hizbullah’s resistance made that too costly.)
The USG Open Sourve Center translates from the London pan-Arab daily, Al-Sharq al-Awsat, for May 5:
As the shelling of the Jawbar, Barzah, and Al-Yarmuk Camp neighborhoods of Damascus resumed yesterday, a large part of the suspended bridge in Dayr-al-Zawr province, east of Syria, collapsed when an explosive device went off. Also, Al-Bayda in Rif Baniyas was the scene of fighting and tank shelling.
According to the Syrian Revolution General Commission (SRGC), the ongoing fighting in various Syrian provinces has continued, as two people were killed and several others were wounded by shells fired by Lebanese Hizballah fighters in the farm areas around Al-Qusayr, in Rif Homs. A The same SRGC sources also said the (regime’s) warplanes carried out a number of raids on Al-Buwaydah al-Sharqiyah and Al-Salumiyah in the south of RifA Homs, setting fire to many farm areas.
Sham News network reported that the regime forces have used heavy artillery to shell a number of neighborhoods of Homs, including Bab-al-Durayb, Al-Qusur, and Al-Khalidiyah, killing or wounding a number of people and destroying a large part of the infrastructure as well as government offices.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) confirmed that Iranian officers and Hizballah elements, supported by elements of the so-called National Defense Forces, are involved in the control of a large part of the Wadi-al-Sayih neighborhood, which will “enable the regular army to isolate the besieged old neighborhoods of Homs from the besieged Al-Khalidiyah neighborhood.”
SOHR Director Rami Abd-al-Rahman said, in a contact with Al-Sharq al-Awsat, “Iranian and Hizballah officers are running the operations room in the battle for Homs and are controlling the army operations in the city, particularly the street battles.” He warned of “massacres against the Sunni community living in the besieged areas if the army captures these areas.”A The SOHR believes that the aim of the current campaign is to tighten the siege around these areas and bring them under control before pointing out that “the lives of about 800 families, who have been under siege for nearly a year now, including the lives of hundreds of wounded people, will be at serious risk from sectarian revenge if these areas fall.”
The SOHR described last month (April) as “the worst month, as far as death under torture and children’s deaths are concerned.” A In its monthly bulletin, the SOHR gave the death toll in Syria as “3,313 citizens shot dead by the regular forces, that is, an average of 138 people per day,A at the rate of six citizens per hour.A Moreover, 377 children were killed, that is 13 children per day; and 176 were killed under torture, at the rate of six people per day.”
The official stance of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu of Israel toward the Syrian civil war has been one of announced “neutrality.” Netanyahu’s position contrasts with that of his political ally, Avigdor Lieberman, an East Bloc Neoconservative who has been arguing for supporting the rebels.
There are some signs, however, that Israel may be rethinking its neutrality and perhaps preparing to join in an effort to arm one of the rebel factions, the “moderates” of the south. The latter are already receiving support from Jordan and Saudi Arabia, who have been alarmed by the rise of the Nusra Front, a radical self-proclaimed al-Qaeda affiliate. On his trip to the UK last week, Netanyahu for the first time admitted the possibility that Israel might arm some of the rebels.
Jordan and Saudi Arabia are allegedly attempting to build up a non-fundamentalist guerrilla group in the Deraa region, in hopes it can take over Damascus and marginalize the fundamentalist Nusra Front.
Then on Tuesday, Brig. Gen. Utai Brun, the country’s top military analyst, alleged that the Syrian state had deployed poisonous sarin gas on more than one occasion in mid-July last year. The Israelis are aware that President Obama designated chemical weapons use as a red line that would trigger a US intervention.
Israel’s primary concerns in Syria are not Syria but Iran and Hizbullah in Lebanon. Israel fears that Syria will find a way to transfer chemical weapons to Hizbullah in Lebanon. Israeli military leaders typically attempt to prevent developments that might limit their freedom of action. a Hizbullah armed with chemicals might deter Israeli military action against the Shiite party-militia.
Meanwhile, Hizbullah has openly joined Syrian government troops in the campaign to take Qusair near Homs away from the rebels. Aljazeera English reports:
Even as Israel may be turning against the Damascus regime of President Bashar al-Assad, a fundamentalist Sunni preacher in Sidon has called on Lebanese Sunnis to fight a holy war against the Baath regime in Syria. Young Sunni men were said to be signing up on Tuesday, even as many Lebanese Shiites continue to support Bashar al-Assad.
Hizbullah is the most effective Arab fighting force still hostile to Israel. It is allied with Iran, which the Israeli leadership says is their country’s chief enemy.
The headlines about the Petraeus affair in the Arab world this morning almost universally read something like “Lebanese woman brings down CIA.” The woman who seems to have destroyed three careers and kicked off the FBI investigation of Gen. David Petraeus, ex-director of the CIA, goes by Jill Kelley. But her maiden name is Gilberte Khawam.
Once the elder Khawam came to the US, he at one point ran a restaurant, the “Sahara,” in the Philadelphia area, and also an auto store. Gilberte or “Jill” was born in 1975, and it isn’t clear whether she was born in the US or in Lebanon. She later married a surgeon named Kelley and 12 years ago they moved to Tampa. They have 3 daughters.
The 1970s were a turbulent time in Lebanon, with the rise of the PLO in Palestinian refugee camps, student strikes, and then from April of 1975 the beginnings of a civil war that lasted a decade and a half. (I myself lived in Lebanon on and off in the 1970s).
Gilberte “Jill’s” twin sister is Natalie Khawam, who was involved in a custody battle with her ex-husband for her son, and whose petition to the court was endorsed by Petraeus and Gen. John Allen, Petraeus’s deputy in Afghanistan who became ISAF commander there.
Natalie Khawam, an attorney, has specialized in defending whistle-blowers. (More generals should be friendly with the attorneys for whistle-blowers, in my view). She is said to have been divorced in part because she cannot manage her finances, and went $3 mn. into debt and bankrupt. The judge in her custody case accused her of being dishonest, manipulative and detached from reality.
Apparently her sister, Gilberte “Jill” Khawam Kelley was close enough to Petraeus such that the latter’s ex-girlfriend, Paula Broadwell, was jealous of her.
The Petraeuses had been guests in the Kelley home in Tampa, and there is a photo, published by Alarabiya: of the Kelleys with Petraeus’s wife, Holly:
Broadwell sent Kelley threatening emails, some of them allegedly spoofed or counterfeited so that they looked like they came from Petraeus.
Kelley complained to a “friend” of hers who was an FBI agent, and he managed to convince the agency to investigate the source of the menacing emails. The FBI “friend” is now said to have been in the habit of sending Kelley photos of himself shirtless. He seems to have been (improperly) told of the Petraeus connection, and became frustrated at the pace of the agency investigation, believing that the FBI was protecting President Obama, and (most improperly) reached out to Eric Cantor, the House Majority leader. Cantor in turn, is alleged to have put pressure on the FBI director in October, perhaps hoping that a scandal would harm President Obama’s reelection campaign. The shirtless FBI agent who kicked the thing off is now himself under investigation!
The FBI not only discovered Broadwell’s affair with Petraeus when they looked into her email, they appear to have also looked into Kelley’s email and discovered a voluminous amorous correspondence between the commanding general in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen, and Jill Khawam Kelley! Allen was in line to become supreme allied commander of NATO, but his confirmation has now been put on hold.
So does it matter that Jill Kelley is an Arab-American? I doubt it. She seems just to be a rich, flirtatious Tampa socialite with good Republican Party connections and a network of high military and FBI “admirers,” and who over-reacted to some petty emails. So far there is no reason to think she is a Mata Hari of any sort. But it does say something about how prominent Arab-Americans now are in US society that no one much remarked on her ethnicity when the story broke. And, who knows, her inherited culture may have had something to do with her reaction to Broadwell’s emails. Lebanon is a place where you kind of have to take threats seriously. And, reaching out to a friend in the government in a way a lot of Americans might consider inappropriate is routine in Beirut (hence seeking “wasta” or a personal connection via the shirtless FBI guy). But lots of Americans of other backgrounds might have reacted similarly.
I’m with Rachel Maddow that the FBI investigators have behaved with appalling lack of regard for the personal privacy of all these individuals, none of whom appears actually to have done anything illegal (though depending on how menacing they were, Broadwell’s threats may have crossed a line). It is not clear to me that the agency should have briefed anyone on the outside on its findings, given the personal and entirely legal character of the information discovered. The only exception here is that Broadwell may have committed a crime by using the internet to threaten Kelley, and Broadwell may have had unauthorized access to classified information via her connection to Petraeus.
The inability of the Syrian government to crush an 18-month-old revolutionary movement is putting increasing pressure on its neighbors. Not only have hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria poured into Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, but political forces in each of those countries are having to choose sides and to reevaluate their choices over time.
The bombing in Beirut’s Ashrafieh neighborhood that killed security chief Wissam al-Hassan last week has widely been blamed inside Lebanon on the Shiite Hizbullah party-militia, which backs the current government of Najib al-Miqati. Angry Lebanese Sunnis of the March 14 movement led by Saad al-Hariri, who oppose the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and sympathize with their Sunni co-religionists in the Syrian opposition, have vowed to bring down the Miqati government. Miqati said Sunday that although he had thought about resigning, he has decided not to stand down.
Still, it remains to be seen if the Lebanese government can avoid falling, given the firestorm set off by the Syria conflict. The problem for Miqati and Hizbullah is that among their key coalition partners is Walid Jumblatt, the mercurial Druze leader, who is said to be turning against the Baath government of Syria. (Jumblatt has flip-flopped on Baathist Syria several times; it is alleged that Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, had Walid’s father, Kamal Jumblatt, assassinated in 1977.) The Washington Post is even hinting that Hizbullah’s Hassan Nasrullah is himself wavering on whether to continue to support Syria so strongly, given the possibility that it could mean the loss of the Miqati government and the political marginalization of Hizbullah inside Lebanon. I actually doubt that Hizbullah is wavering, given its strong alliance with Iran, which is backing al-Assad.
Likewise, the Syria conflict is spilling over onto Iraq, where the NYT alleges some Shiite fighters are going to Damascus to defend the shrine of Sayyida Zainab, holy to their branch of Islam, from possible destruction by hard line Salafis that have already targeted that neighborhood. During the Iraq War, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis fled to Syria, and Shiite Iraqis congregated around the shrine. They have largely been ethnically cleansed by hard line Sunnis, seen as foreigners supporting the al-Assad regime, and there are concerns that Wahhabi-influenced Salafis might raze the shrine. (Saudi Wahhabis, like early militant Protestants in 16th-century Europe, are iconoclasts who despise the cult of saints, shrines and relics, insisting that only God is holy, and no intercession is possible with Him by third parties. Shiite Muslims, in contrast, are all about saints related to the Prophet Muhammad, and their tombs and shrines, and do believe they will intercede for believers.)
On Saturday, Sunni guerrillas unleashed a series of bombings and attacks on Shiite pilgrims and Shiite neighborhoods in Iraq. Although this tactic of attempting to foment Sunni-Shiite violence is by now 9 years old, it may be continuing in force in part because of the new struggle over the future of Syria. Syria’s Baath government is secular, socialist and nationalist, but the upper echelons of the Baath government and army are dominated by members of the Alawite minority, a form of folk Shiism. About 10-14 percent of Syrians are Alawite. The al-Assad government also has a geopolitical alliance with Shiite Iran and, increasingly, the Shiite government of Iraq.
The idea of a 4-day cease-fire in Syria’s ongoing revolution/ civil war during the Eid al-Adha (Feast of Sacrifice, commemorating Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son for God) was always a difficult proposition. Cease-fires work when two sides are exhausted and can’t see how easily to make further gains through fighting. That situation does not obtain in Syria– the ceaseless back-and-forth of guerrilla strikes and regime reprisal has been going on for over a year, and the revolutionaries appear to have gradually chipped away at the Baath government’s control of much of the country. When one side has the momentum, it simply makes no sense to have a cease-fire.
A powerful bomb exploded in Ashrafieh, a largely Christian neighborhood in the Lebanese capital of Beirut, on Friday, killing Wissam al-Hassan, an intelligence expert in the Lebanese security apparatus who had been critical of Syria.
Tensions immediate rose in hot spots such as Tripoli or the Bikaa Valley, with protesting youth burning tires in the streets and cutting highways off from traffic. There have been occasional firefights in recent months in Tripoli between Allawite Shiites and Sunni Muslims. Until now, Beirut had largely been spared such violence over the Syrian revolution.
Sunni politician Saad al-Hariri blamed Syrian president Bashar al-Assad for the bombing, as did Druze leader Waleed Jumblatt. Generally, Sunni Muslims in Lebanon wish for the overthrow of the al-Assad Baath government, which is dominated at the top by Allawite Shiites. Most Lebanese Christians and Shiites, on the other hand, either support al-Assad or are worried about what will happen to their communities if he falls.
There have previously been assassination campaigns in Lebanon, as in 2004-2005, when critics of Syria were bombed or shot, including al-Hariri’s father, Rafiq, a former Lebanese prime minister.