Archive for June 21st, 2013

Lebanese army seals parliament after protests, Syria-linked tension

By Dominic Evans

BEIRUT | Fri Jun 21, 2013

(Reuters) – The Lebanese army sealed off Beirut’s parliamentary district with razor wire and threatened stern action against violence on Friday after a night of unrest stoked by the war in Syria and political paralysis at home.

Around 100 protesters, angered by the postponement of June’s parliamentary election until next year, scuffled with police on Thursday night near parliament. Twenty camped out overnight outside the ring of barbed wire, vowing to maintain the protest.

As the largely peaceful demonstration unfolded in central Beirut, protesters blocked roads with burning tires elsewhere in the capital and in Bekaa Valley towns in eastern Lebanon.

Demonstrators said they were acting in solidarity with residents of the Sunni Muslim Bekaa town of Arsal, which they say has been cut off by security forces investigating the shooting of four Shi’ite Muslim men on Sunday.

Sectarian violence has intensified across Lebanon and particularly in the Bekaa region because of the conflict raging across the border in Syria, where Lebanon’s Shi’ite militia Hezbollah and Lebanese Sunni gunmen have joined opposing sides of the 27-month-old civil war.

Rockets from suspected Syrian rebel positions have hit Shi’ite towns in Lebanon since Hezbollah intervened decisively to recapture the Syrian border town of Qusair for President Bashar al-Assad’s forces earlier this month.

The army also discovered a rocket launcher in an area east of Beirut on Friday. The rocket was still in place, and apparently had not gone off due to a technical fault, a security source said.

The fighting in Syria has already driven half a million Syrian refugees into Lebanon and worsened a political stalemate which forced the election delay and held up efforts to form a new government. Former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, a Sunni leader, warned this week of the potential for “state collapse”.

President Michel Suleiman has appealed to Hezbollah to bring its fighters home from Syria, saying that further entanglement there by the Iranian-backed movement will fuel instability in Lebanon, still scarred by its own 1975-1990 civil war.

ARMY WILL CONFRONT “OUTLAWS”

The army said several military posts and patrols were targeted on Thursday night by protesters, some of them armed, and four soldiers were wounded in exchanges of gunfire.

Security sources said at least two demonstrators were hurt in a protest near the main border crossing with Syria at Masnaa.

“The army leadership again urges citizens to be calm and not to follow rumors and sectarian emotions,” the military said in a statement. “It will not be lenient in confronting with force any outlaws or those who harm the armed forces.”

The statement said gunmen fired on army posts in three towns close to the Masnaa border crossing early on Friday. The army returned fire and arrested 22 suspects in raids following the incidents.

Travelers trying to reach Lebanon from Syria on Friday morning said the frontier was closed for several hours due to the skirmishes, but reopened later in the day.

Army commander General Jean Kahwaji was quoted by the local As-Safir newspaper as saying the military would not tolerate any threats to Lebanon’s security during what he described as “very critical and very difficult” times.

In central Beirut, activists said they would keep up their protest against the 17-month extension of parliament, agreed by politicians after they failed to break a deadlock over planned changes to the electoral law.

“We called for a protest yesterday against the extension and against the violation on Lebanon’s democracy,” protester Marwan Maalouf said. “This is a new coup against the republic.

“Security forces used force against the protesters so we decided to set up tents here in a peaceful way to protest the extension. There is a year and a half, we won’t let them rest.”

(Editing by Alistair Lyon)

Source: Reuters.

Link: http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/06/21/us-syria-crisis-lebanon-idUSBRE95K0GS20130621.

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Lebanon feeling heat from Syrian war

June 19, 2013

BEIRUT, Lebanon, June 19 (UPI) — Lebanese leaders need to work quickly to prevent sectarian conflict from erupting as the threat from Syria’s war moves closer, the speaker of Parliament said.

Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri said Wednesday there were growing concerns about “sectarian strife” in Lebanon.

Lebanon’s political structure is divided along religious lines. Those divisions have been strained by the role Shiite movement Hezbollah has played in Syria’s civil war.

Hezbollah says it is fighting alongside pro-government forces in Syria to protect Lebanon from Syrian rebel groups, some of which are aligned with al-Qaida. Conflict has erupted, however, between pro- and anti-Syria elements near Lebanese-Syrian border.

Berri was quoted by the official National News Agency as calling “for doubling efforts to put an end to such attempts that threaten [to destabilize] the country.”

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said from Beirut the refugee crisis was compounding the issue for Lebanon. He said Lebanon is on pace to host more than 1 million Syrian refugees by the end of the year.

Guterres said the threat of spillover from the Syrian war “is now becoming a harsh reality” for countries like Lebanon.

“The international community must overcome its divisions and come together to stop the fighting if we want to prevent the flames of war from spreading across the Middle East,” he said in a statement.

Source: United Press International (UPI).

Link: http://www.upi.com/Top_News/Special/2013/06/19/Lebanon-feeling-heat-from-Syrian-war/UPI-95621371656907/.

Assad forces build up for Aleppo offensive

June 19, 2013

BEIRUT, Lebanon, June 19 (UPI) — Forces loyal to embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad are reported tightening a cordon around the northern city of Aleppo, once the country’s commercial heart, in a major offensive against rebels who hold 60 percent of the city.

The regime, dominated by the minority Alawite sect, is massing tanks and artillery around the ancient city that was once part of the famed Silk Road to China, for the coming showdown military analysts say could determine the course of the civil war, now in its third year.

Assad’s troops were greatly buoyed by their capture of the strategic town of Qusair in central Syria’s Homs province June 5 after a three-week battle.

The town, which controls supply routes from neighboring Lebanon, had been held by rebel forces for more than a year, cutting off Damascus from the Alawite heartland in the northwest.

The fall of Qusair after fierce fighting opened the way for the regime to push into central Syria in a drive to recapture territory held by the rebels, including Homs, the provincial capital, and Aleppo, the big prize.

The regime needs to take control of Aleppo to undercut the rebellion that erupted March 15, 2011, and to reassert dominance of Syria’s main population centers.

A rebel defeat in Aleppo would mean a critical and possibly terminal setback for those seeking to end Assad’s rule.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision Thursday to arm rebel forces — although it’s not clear whether arms would include urgently needed anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles — could make a critical difference if the flow starts quickly.

The U.S. move overturned two years of reluctance by the West to get directly involved in the Syrian fighting, which threatens to spill over into neighboring states like Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey.

Indeed, it was the regime’s conquest of Qusair, largely due to fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah who spearheaded the assault, that convinced Obama U.S. aid should be increased from medicine and supplies to include arms.

Much will depend on how swiftly the Americans can start the arms flowing to the rebels through Jordan and Turkey.

Rebels report Syrian warplanes attacked their positions around the contested Kweiras airbase near Aleppo Tuesday amid heavy ground skirmishes.

The regime’s command of the air is a major problem for the rebels, and unless they get surface-to-air missiles they will face serious problems in the looming battle for Aleppo.

The air force has carried out a series of aerial resupply operations in the region in the last two months that rebels have been powerless to prevent.

But it’s not all clear sailing for the regime forces either.

They face major obstacles in the push on Aleppo from well-entrenched rebel blocking positions, which are being supplied with weapons through Turkey, Syria’s northern neighbor, funded by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Loyalist forces have seized several villages in Homs province in recent days to consolidate their Qusair victory.

“Troop movements and bombardment patterns suggest the regime will likely stage attacks on rebels in Homs city proper and around the towns of Rastan and Talbiseh along the M5 highway, which leads from the Jordanian border in the south, through Damascus and all the way north to Aleppo,” the U.S.-based global security consulting firm Stratfor says.

Analysts say the regime’s assault on Aleppo may be deferred until there’s a significant loyalist push from the south as well.

“For all the regime’s announcements of an imminent victory in Aleppo, it is important to remember the very significant obstacles,” Statfor stressed. “Many of these are in fact the same that prevented the regime from ousting the rebels from the city in the summer of 2012.”

The rebels are dug in along much of the M5, which the regime would need to control to supply a major mechanized force.

Activists say rebels have already sent blocking forces to key supply routes in anticipation of a regime push northward from Hama province.

The Iranian-backed Hezbollah will likely play a key role in the Aleppo offensive as a strike force, as it did in the battle of Qusair.

The Shiite movement, which has fought the Israelis for three decades, has proven to be a staunch ally of Assad’s Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Source: United Press International (UPI).

Link: http://www.upi.com/Top_News/Special/2013/06/19/Assad-forces-build-up-for-Aleppo-offensive/UPI-13761371648604/.

Saudi to expel Hezbollah supporters over Syria war

June 20, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — In the latest sign of the fissures growing in the Arab world over the Syrian civil war, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Beirut has announced that the kingdom plans to deport Lebanese who supported Hezbollah, one of Damascus’ key allies.

The warning comes as the Lebanese Shiite militant group takes an increasingly prominent role in the Syrian war, fighting alongside President Bashar Assad’s troops in a key battle earlier this month. Saudi Arabia is a strong backer of the mostly-Sunni Syrian opposition trying to remove Assad from power. Assad belongs to the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

It follows the decision earlier this month by the Gulf Cooperation Council — which includes Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates — to crack down on Hezbollah members in the Gulf and limit their “financial and business transactions.”

Hezbollah says it has no businesses in the Gulf nations. However, there are more than half a million Lebanese working in the Gulf Arab nations, including tens of thousands in Saudi Arabia, some of whom have been living in the kingdom for decades. Many of those Lebanese are Shiites.

Saudi Arabia will deport “those who financially support this party,” Ambassador Ali Awad Assiri told Lebanon’s Future TV late Wednesday. He did not elaborate on whether other actions could be also considered support for Hezbollah.

“This is a serious decision and will be implemented in detail,” Assiri said, without specifying when the deportations would begin. “Acts are being committed against innocent Syrian people.” Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour told reporters Thursday he was in contact with Gulf officials over the matter. Hezbollah and its allies dominate Lebanon’s current government, which resigned March 22, but continues to run the country’s affairs in a caretaker capacity.

Syria’s 2-year civil war, which has killed nearly 93,000 people, is increasingly pitting Sunni against Shiite Muslims and threatening the stability of Syria’s neighbors. Assad draws his support largely from fellow Alawites as well as other minorities including Christians and Shiites. He is backed by Shiite Iran, Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiites.

U.S. officials estimate that 5,000 Hezbollah members are fighting alongside Assad’s regime, while thousands of Sunni foreign fighters are also believed to be in Syria — including members of Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaida affiliate that is believed to be among the most effective rebel factions. Public opinion in Sunni states is often sympathetic to the rebels.

Fighting between pro- and anti-Syrian groups has broken out in Lebanon, and Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria is deepening tensions at home. Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, who has been increasingly critical of the group recently, said in remarks published Thursday that he is against Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria and that Hezbollah fighters should return to Lebanon.

“I told them from the start that I am against this act,” he was quoted by al-Safir daily as saying. In Syria, activists reported violence between government forces and rebels in different parts of the country on Thursday, mostly near the capital Damascus and in the northern city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest urban center and its commercial hub.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 11 rebels were killed in a battle with government troops in Aleppo, where the opposition has controlled whole neighborhoods and large swathes of surrounding land since last summer.

Pro-regime media outlets announced earlier this month that troops had launched an offensive to build on the momentum of their Qusair triumph to retake Aleppo and other areas of the north. Another activist group, the Syria-based Aleppo Media Center, said rebels launched an attack on army positions in the city’s Suleiman al-Halabi neighborhood. There were no immediate reports of casualties on the government side in the fighting.

Amateur videos showed gunmen shooting and firing rockets at army positions in the neighborhood. The videos appeared genuine and corresponded to other AP reporting on the events depicted. Meanwhile, Syria’s main Western-backed opposition group said 40,000 civilians in two northern districts of Damascus in which government forces have been operating are suffering food shortages and lack medical supplies.

“After six months of continuous siege, (and ) military checkpoints … the neighborhoods of Qaboun and Barzeh are at risk,” the Syrian National Coalition said in a statement. It said the government forces conduct frequent raids in the two districts and there is fear that such army operations will result in a “massacre.”

Also on Thursday, the Observatory urged the International Committee of the Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations to intervene and take medicine and food to Aleppo’s central prison. Heavy fighting around the prison has raged for weeks and there have been casualties among the prisoners, the activists said.

The Observatory, which has a network of activists around the country, said three detainees died this week from tuberculosis and that scabies was spreading in the jail, which holds thousands of prisoners.

The prison, which is besieged by rebels, relies on food and medicine brought in drop-offs by army helicopters. The Observatory said more than 100 detainees have been killed since April when the fighting around the prison began.

Meanwhile, Syrian rebels and Kurdish gunmen reached an agreement to end a rebel siege of the northern predominantly Kurdish region of Afrin that triggered a shortage of food and medicine there, the Observatory said.

The Afrin flare-up began when rebels wanted to pass through it to attack the predominantly Shiite villages of Nubul and Zahra, controlled by Assad loyalists, the head of the Observatory, Rami Abdul-Rahman, said. After Kurdish groups refused, rebels attacked Kurdish checkpoints and laid siege beginning on May 25.

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