US targets major drug cartel: Hezbollah – Ya Libnan

The Obama administration charged Hezbollah with operating like an international drug cartel and blacklisted two Lebanese money-exchange houses for allegedly moving tens of millions of dollars of drug profit through the U.S. financial system on behalf of the militant group.

The Treasury Department’s action Tuesday marked the latest salvo in a two-year U.S. government campaign against Hezbollah’s alleged drug-trafficking activities.

U.S. officials alleged that Hezbollah is using proceeds from this narcotics trade to fund international terrorist activities and to bolster the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in their fight against a widening political rebellion.

U.S. officials also said Hezbollah is increasingly reverting to illicit trade to offset diminished funding coming from Iran, the organization’s closest ally.

“Hezbollah is operating like a major drug cartel,” said Derek Maltz, a special agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration, who is overseeing the U.S. probe into Hezbollah. “These proceeds are funding violence against Americans.”

Bulgaria’s Interior Ministry concluded that Hezbollah operatives conducted last year’s bombing of a tourism bus at a Black Sea resort that killed five Israeli nationals. The European Union is considering imposing broadsanctions on Hezbollah as a result.

Read more at Ya Libnan.

This article is from the archives. I feel that it is worth republishing because it is of major historical importance and relevance to understanding current Middle East events. Broadly speaking, Hezbollah might be thought of as the Shi’ite equivalent of Sunni-based Al Qaeda. I know that’s a crude comparison. But in Syria, these two radical Islamist ideologies are principle players in a major, regional civil conflict that has resulted in the deaths of over 100,000 people.

Former minister killed in Beirut car bomb

Forensic experts check the site of explosion near a crater in Beirut, Friday, Dec. 27, 2013. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

BEIRUT: Former Minister Mohammad Shatah, a senior aide to former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, was killed along with five other people in a car bomb blast in Downtown Beirut Friday, a security source said.

The March 14 coalition, which is headed by the Future Movement, pointed the finger of blame at the regime of Syria’s President Bashar Assad, which swiftly denied the allegations.

Shatah’s vehicle was making its way in the capital’s bustling central district at the time of the explosion, which also killed Mohammad Tareq Badr, the former finance minister’s bodyguard, the source said, adding that 70 people were also wounded in the blast that struck at around 9.45 a.m.

The 62-year-old, who was also a close aide to former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, was headed to Hariri’s Downtown residence where a meeting of the March 14 coalition was under way.

His killing comes days before the U.N.-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon begins the trial of four Hezbollah suspects over the 2005 assassination of Hariri’s father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the founder of the Future Movement.

Read more at The Daily Star-Lebanon

Rare snowstorm near Syria-Lebanon border brings havoc, disrupts aid

A Syrian refugee shovels snow outside her tent in the makeshift refugee camp of Terbol near the Bekaa Valley town of Zahleh in eastern Lebanon on December 11, 2013.(AFP Photo / STR)

At least two people were killed and 14 injured as the first snowfall of the season hit Syria and Lebanon. High winds and freezing temperatures affected refugee camps and disrupted international aid. More severe weather is expected this winter.

The storm, named ‘Alexa,’ took the lives of two people and injured 14 others in Lebanon, Ya Libnan reported, citing Red Cross Secretary General George Kettaneh.

The winter storm caused transportation chaos in the region and grounded the UN humanitarian airlift, which was scheduled to bring food and supplies from Iraq to the northeastern Kurdish areas of Syria. Tens of thousands of people are isolated in those areas, waiting for the aid to arrive.

Read more at RT-Novosti

Assad’s Poison Pill

Initially perceived as President Bashar Assad’s worst blunder in Syria’s civil war, the use of chemical weapons by his army last summer increasingly looks like his ticket to military victory and the key to his political survival.

As a small U.N.-affiliated group of chemical weapons experts toils to maintain a tight schedule mandated by the Security Council for the destruction of Syria’s chemical arms, Western diplomats and the United Nations are hard at work organizing a conference in Geneva in an attempt to end the carnage.

But critics say that it could actually help Assad win the nearly three-year war, even as he stands accused by a top U.N. official of complicity in war crimes.

Damascus says its aim in attending the proposed Geneva conference is to maintain the Assad family’s 40-year hold on power. And as observers believe that the military situation now favors the Assad government, he could also seal a diplomatic victory by leveraging his cooperation with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) team.

“Assad will continue to cooperate with the OPCW,” said a Western diplomat who closely follows Syria. “He has the know-how, so he can renew the chemical program in the future if he wants it. But for now, as long as he cooperates with the chemical team, everybody has an interest in keeping him in power,” the diplomat added, asking for anonymity so he could speak freely.

Read more at Newsweek

Cut Off: Starving Syrians Hope to Live Through Winter

A young boy sits alone in a rubble-filled street in the Harasta area of Damascus. What the chemical weapons failed to achieve is now being gradually accomplished by hunger: the annihilation of a city.

As the world focuses on Syria’s chemical disarmament, thousands of people in the country face a more pressing concern: starvation. Cut off by ongoing violence, they are dying because they have no access to supplies. Many will not survive the winter.

Three-year-old Ibrahim Khalil survived the chemical weapons attacks on Aug. 21. But then, 10 days later, he died of hunger — just as the next child died hours after him and a third died four days later in the Damascus suburb of Muadhamiya.

When the world learned of the sarin gas attacks that took place in the suburbs of Damascus this past summer, it reacted with outrage, leading to Syria’s dismantling of its chemical arsenal, which was declared complete by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons on Thursday. Yet hardly anyone seems to be taking notice of these new deaths. After being under siege for months, cut off from food supplies, electricity, water and any form of aid, people are beginning to die of malnutrition.

Children are also starving to death in Yarmouk in the southern part of Damascus and other places sealed off by government troops. But nowhere is the situation as fatal as it is in Muadhamiya, where six children had died by mid-October “and dozens are already so weak that an ordinary cold would kill them,” says Dr. Amin Abu Ammar, one of the last doctors in the suburb.

The fact that President Bashar Assad agreed to destroy his stockpiles of chemical weapons is a piece of good news from a war that is not producing any other positive reports. In fact, it’s too good, so good that the chemical weapons inspectors were promptly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and it seemed as if the rest of the war had ceased. And while European governments are mainly concerned about foreign jihadists infiltrating Syria, there are about 1,000 armed local fighters in Muadhamiya who don’t even have any contact with neighboring towns.

Read more at Der Spiegel

New Islamist Bloc Declares Opposition to National Coalition and US Strategy

By Aron Lund for Syria Comment
Sept. 24, 2013

Abdelaziz Salame, the highest political leader of the Tawhid Brigade in Aleppo, has issued a statement online where he claims to speak for 13 different rebel factions. You can see the video or read it in Arabic here. The statement is titled “communiqué number one” – making it slightly ominous right off the bat – and what it purports to do is to gut Western strategy on Syria and put an end to the exiled opposition.

The statements has four points, some of them a little rambling. My summary:

– All military and civilian forces should unify their ranks in an “Islamic framwork” which is based on “the rule of sharia and making it the sole source of legislation”.

– The undersigned feel that they can only be represented by those who lived and sacrificed for the revolution.

– Therefore, they say, they are not represented by the exile groups. They go on to specify that this applies to the National Coalition and the planned exile government of Ahmed Touma, stressing that these groups “do not represent them” and they “do not recognize them”.

– In closing, the undersigned call on everyone to unite and avoid conflict, and so on, and so on.

The following groups are listed as signatories to the statement.

1. Jabhat al-Nosra
2. Islamic Ahrar al-Sham Movement
3. Tawhid Brigade
4. Islam BrigadeIslamic Dawn Movement
5. Suqour al-Sham Brigades
6. Islamic Dawn Movement
7. Islamic Light Movement
8. Noureddin al-Zengi Battalions
9. Haqq Brigade – Homs
10. Furqan Brigade – Quneitra
11. Fa-staqim Kama Ummirat Gathering – Aleppo
12. 19th Division
13. Ansar Brigade

Who are these people?

The alleged signatories make up a major part of the northern rebel force, plus big chunks also of the Homs and Damascus rebel scene, as well as a bit of it elsewhere. Some of them are among the biggest armed groups in the country, and I’m thinking now mostly of numbers one through five. All together, they control at least a few tens of thousand fighters, and if you trust their own estimates (don’t) it must be way above 50,000 fighters.

Most of the major insurgent alliances are included. Liwa al-Tawhid, Liwa al-Islam and Suqour al-Sham are in both the Western- and Gulf-backed Supreme Military Council (SMC a.k.a. FSA) and the SILF, sort-of-moderate Islamists. Ahrar al-Sham and Haqq are in the SIF, very hardline Islamists. Jabhat al-Nosra, of course, is an al-Qaida faction. Noureddin al-Zengi are in the Asala wa-Tanmiya alliance (which is led by quietist salafis, more or less) as well as in the SMC. And so on. More groups may join, but already at this stage, it looks – on paper, at least – like the most powerful insurgent alliance in Syria.

Read more at Syria Comment

Brief History of Aleppo: A Great World City Now in the Grip of War

As Syrian government forces and rebels clash in Aleppo, TIME takes a look at the history of this ancient, cosmopolitan city now locked in a state of war

A picture taken March 17, 2006 shows a general view of the historic Syrian city of Aleppo, 350 kms north of Damascus, with its landmark cytadel in the background

Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, is in the grip of the country’s civil war. Government attack helicopters and fighter jets circle the city’s skies as rebel factions entrench themselves in Aleppo’s old town and sections of the city’s suburbs. The regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad has dispatched armored columns to flush out insurgents, not unlike its recent crackdown on rebel fighters in pockets of the capital Damascus. One rebel commander in Aleppo told the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph that the fight for Syria’s commercial capital, a city of 2.5 million people, would last months. Rebels are stockpiling medical supplies and munitions, while the U.S. State Department warned of a potential massacre. A pro-government newspaper promised the “mother of all battles.”

Until recently, Aleppo was not one of the major theaters of the Syrian conflict. But it is no stranger to war. With a history as ancient as Damascus — considered to be one of the longest continuously inhabited cities in the world — Aleppo has been won and lost by a succession of empires, sacked by myriad invaders and reduced to rubble by epic earthquakes. That it still stands, and is, indeed, with its thousands of old limestone houses and winding old streets, a UNESCO World Heritage Centre, is testament to the richness of its past and the resilience of its people.

From its early origins, Aleppo was a place where people grew wealthy. Cuneiform tablets from roughly four thousand years ago tell of a settlement called ‘Halabu’ — eventually Aleppo — that was even then a center for the manufacture of garments and cloth. Located not far from the Mediterranean Sea on one side and the river valley of the mighty Tigris and Euphrates on the other, the city found itself in the middle of ancient Egyptian and Hittite trade routes. The Seleucids, a Greek dynasty descended from one of the lieutenants of Alexander the Great, developed the area further, while certain colonnaded avenues and courtyard homes in Aleppo today bear the tell-tale signs of Roman craftsmanship and Hellenistic urban planning.

Read more at TIME

Under siege: the uncertain fate of Arab Christians – Al Arabiya

Hisham Melhem

Rarely do I write about my personal feelings and passions. The situation is different this time. I write with pain, nay, I write with anger. While watching with horror the savage assaults against the Christians in the Eastern Mediterranean, one of the first and oldest Christian communities in the world, I am shocked. From the beginning of the season of Arab uprisings I kept reminding myself, and others, that when we analyze and assess the rapidly unfolding events we should not lose sight of the fundamentals: the civil and human rights of all the peoples living in theses societies regardless of their ethnic and religious backgrounds or their gender. By that I meant that we should denounce and resist repression and injustice inherent in transitional times when the old entrenched powers, along with absolutist radical groups, continue to undermine peaceful inclusive change. Both state and “revolutionary” repression and intimidation should be confronted, although state repression is more dangerous because it is systemic and institutional.

Events in Syria

I was shocked by, and denounced, the destruction of the great Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo, a jewel of a structure with its elegant 11th century minaret. This was a beastly act perpetrated by a cruel regime and primitive gangs of fanatic Islamists. Also shocking was the shelling and looting of the historic Jobar synagogue in Damascus, one of the oldest Jewish houses of worship in the world. Now, I am seized with deep anger because the terror of both the Syrian government forces and elements of the radical Islamists Jabhat al-Nusra or Nusra Front have visited the iconic town of Maaloula, a truly unique and special Christian sanctuary nestled in the rugged mountains not far from Damascus where many inhabitants still speak Aramaic, the language of Christ . Maaloula’s Christian inhabitants, with their family tree going back to the first Christian communities in ancient Syria, fled the town when it was taken and retaken by the marauding gangs of Assad and al-Nusra.

I was born, and grew up, in Beirut in a decidedly conservative Christian (Maronite/Catholic) environment. I still remember the pride we felt as youngsters when we used to pray and chant Syriac/Aramaic hymns written in Arabic script. In my teens I read Nahj al-Balaghah by Imam ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib (usually translated in English as “Peak of eloquence”) the cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad, who is considered by his Shiite followers as the most important figure in Islam after the Prophet. The book is truly a magnificent collection of speeches, invocations and aphorisms written by a man of wisdom, courage and compassion. This was the beginning of my love affair with the Arabic language. Another great Muslim Caliph I admired was Omar Ibn Al Khattab, the second of the four wise Caliphs that succeeded Prophet Muhammad. Omar, one of the most powerful and consequential figures in the history of Islam, was known for his strong sense of social justice. I named my son after him.

Even when I parted ways with religion and became a secularist, I remained attached to the rituals and aestheticism of Christianity and Islam and their civilizational legacies. When I find myself in a European capital I do my own version of (Gothic) church hopping. On my first visit to Cairo and Istanbul I was intoxicated with their charming mosques and ancient churches. All this is to say that what I am writing here is not emanating from my religious background but from my moral and political convictions.

Read more at Al Arabiya

‘We Just Wish for the Hit to Put an End to the Massacres’

For Syrian refugees in Jordan’s Zaatari camp, arguments about international law ring hollow.

A family from Dara’a, now living in a caravan in Zaatari. “Even the children have forgotten how to smile,” the woman remarked to me. (All photos: Max Blumenthal)

I sat inside a dimly lit, ramshackle trailer functioning as a general store for the residents of the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, while a wiry, sad-eyed man named Adbel told me about the massacres that drove him from his hometown. Dragging deeply on a cigarette, Abdel described how army forces rained shells down on his neighborhood in Deir Ba’alba, a district in Homs, over five months ago, pounding the town over and over. Then he told me how government thugs barged into homes at 6 am, methodically slashing his neighbors to death with long knives, leaving fields irrigated with the blood of corpses, a nightmarish scene that looked much like this. Like nearly everyone I interviewed in the camp, he described his experience in clinical detail, with a flat tone and a blank expression, masking continuous trauma behind stoicism.

As Abdel mashed his cigarette into a tin ashtray and reached to light another, a woman appeared at the shop window with three young children. She said she had no money and had not been able to purchase baby formula for three days. She had trudged to hospitals across the camp seeking help and was turned away at each stop. Without hesitation, the shop owner, a burly middle-aged man also from Homs, pulled a can of formula off a shelf and handed it over to the woman. She made no promise to pay him back, and he did not ask for one. Like so many in the camp, she left Syria with nothing and now depends on the charity of others for her survival. In a human warehouse of 120,000, the fourth-largest population center in Jordan and the second-largest refugee camp in the world, where few can leave and even fewer are able to enter, the woman’s desperate existence was not an exception but the rule.

“We’re in a prison right now,” Abdel told me. “We can’t do anything. And the minute we try to have a small demonstration, even peacefully, [Jordanian soldiers] throw tear gas at us.”

“Guantánamo!” the shop owner bellows.

None of the dozens of adults I interviewed in the camp would allow me to report their full names or photograph their faces. If they return to Syria with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad still intact, they fear brutal recriminations. Many have already survived torture, escaped from prisons or defected from Assad’s army. “With all the bloodshed, the killing of people who did not even join the resistance, Bashar only wanted to teach us one lesson: That we are completely weak and he is our god,” a woman from Dara’a in her early 60s told me. “His goal is to demolish our spirit so we will never rise up again.” The woman’s sons had spent four months under sustained torture for defecting to the Free Syrian Army. She does not know where they are now, only that they are back in the field, battling Assad’s forces in a grinding stalemate that has taken somewhere around 100,000 lives.

Mansour, a 7-year-old, was held at gunpoint by regime forces when his father was arrested. They were reunited in Zaatari, where Mansour is desperate to receive a caravan for his family.

When news of the August 21 chemical attacks that left hundreds dead in the Ghouta region east of Damascus reached Zaatari, terror and dread spiked to unprecedented levels. Many residents repeated to me the rumors spreading through the camp that Bashar would douse them in sarin gas as soon as he crushed the last vestiges of internal resistance—a kind of genocidal victory celebration. When President Barack Obama announced his intention to launch punitive missile strikes on Syria, however, a momentary sense of hope began to surge through the camp. Indeed, there was not one person I spoke to in Zaatari who did not demand US military intervention at the earliest possible moment.

Read more at The Nation

Syrian president’s brother, Maher al-Assad, key to regime survival

Maher al-Assad, the younger brother of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. (AFP)

He is rarely photographed or even quoted in Syria’s media. Wrapped in that blanket of secrecy, President Bashar al-Assad’s younger brother has been vital to the family’s survival in power.

Maher al-Assad commands the elite troops that protect the Syrian capital from rebels on its outskirts and is widely believed to have helped orchestrate the regime’s fierce campaign to put down the uprising, now well into its third year. He has also gained a reputation for brutality among opposition activists.

His role underlines the family core of the al-Assad regime, though he is a stark contrast to his brothers. His eldest brother, Basil, was the family prince, publicly groomed by their father, Hafez, to succeed him as president – until Basil died in a 1994 car crash. That vaulted Bashar, then an eye doctor in London with no military or political experience, into the role of heir, rising to the presidency after his father’s death in 2000. The two brothers – the “martyr” and the president – often appear together in posters.

Read more at Al Arabiya

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