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The National’s Mitch Prothero features an excellent article (in English) on the recent attack against the LAF by drug lords.  LAF efforts against drug production (primarily hashish) in the Beqa ebb and flow and are usually connected to larger Lebanese political trends.  In other words, the crackdown on drug traffickers in the Hezbollah controlled region may be related to the elections. 

However, the recent attack was in retaliation for the LAF’s killing of a member of the Jafar clan back in March.   This act of vegence is not at all surprising, though it is tragic nonetheless.  Also, Prothero deserves praise for trying to explain the real, but ambiguous link between Hezbullah and the drug traffickers of the Beqa’.  His information on the links between the Zaiter clan and the murder of Mugniyeh’s son is new to me.

Anyone interested in the hashish trade in the Beqa’ ought to check out this transcript from an interview al-Arabiya conducted with the infamous Nawah Zaiter last year.  Zaiter portrays himself as something of a Robin Hood and offers valuable insights into the mindset of hashish growers in the Beqa’.

I’ll have a big roundup of the Egypt-Hezbollah issue sometime tomorrow or Thursday.

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Last night in a televised address on al-Manar Hasan Nasrallah responded to the accusations of the Egyptian General Prosecutor that Hezbollah operatives were plotting attacks and subversive activities on Egyptian territory.  A quote from al-Akhbar:

وعلّق قائلاً: «نحن نحكي الأمور بوضوح وبمسؤولية، والذي نقوم به لا نستحي به ولا لحظة، لذلك أقول، أولاً إن الأخ سامي هو عضو في حزب الله ونحن لسنا ناكرين هذا الموضوع ولا مستحين فيه. ثانياً، إن ما كان يقوم به على الحدود المصرية الفلسطينية هو عمل لوجستي لمساعدة الإخوة الفلسطينيين في نقل عتاد وأفراد لمصلحة المقاومة في داخل فلسطين. وهذه هي المسألة الصحيحة الوحيدة التي لم ترد في الاتهامات، مع العلم بأنني قرأت الوقائع».

He commented, “We tell the matters clearly and with responsibility.  What we we do does not embarass us, not even for a moment.  Thus I’ll say first, brother Sami he is a member in Hezbollah and we are not denying this matter and we are not ashamed of it.  Second, what we were doing on the Egyptian-Palestinian border were logistic activities to help the Palestinian brothers in trasnporting equipment and individuals for the interest of the resistance within Palestine.  This is the only correct thing that it did not respond to in the accusations, with the knoweldge that I read the facts.”

Nasrallah admitted that the Lebanese, Sami Shihab, who was apprehended in November 2008 is indeed a member of Hezbollah, but was merely smuggling weapons and military equipment to Hamas in Gaza.  Nasrallah denied that there is any “branch” of Hezbollah in Egypt or any other Arab country.  As I mentioned in my first post on the issue, the dispute ought to be read within the context of the Gaza War and Nasrallah’s condemnation of Mubarak’s refusal to open the Rafah border crossing.   For now it’s Nasrallah’s word against the Egyptian General Prosecutor’s.

On a final note, even if Nasrallah was completely honest in yesterday’s address, Hezbollah nonetheless displayed a complete disregard for Egyptian sovereignty.  While it may not have formal cells in Arab countries, the Party of God was clearly organizing weapons smuggling across Egyptian territory.

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Michael Young has an op-ed in the Lebanese Daily Star in which he makes the case that regardless of whether March 14 or March 8 wins a majority in the June elections, Syria stands to gain.  He is right in so far as Syria is in a strong position right now and may very well consolidate its influence over Lebanon come June.  Its game of brinksmanship over Lebanon, the Palestinian movement, negotiations with Israel, and friendship with Iran, has yielded a series of visits from the West and previously unfriendly Arab states such as Saudi Arabia.  Young’s piece is worthwhile and I agree with most of it.  Below are some minor quibbles/comments.

First, Young inflates potential fissures in March 14, when they are not necessarily greater than those in March 8.  For example, the Berri-Jumblatt “alliance”,  as far as I know, is electoral and confined to the Western Beqa and a candidate in the south.  This is not a new or unexpected development, I heard rumors of an alliance between the PSP and Amal leaders from people close to Jumblatt last summer.  On the March 8 side, deep gaps remain between Berri and Aoun over March 8 lists in Baaba, Zahrani, and Jezzine.  Roughly two weeks ago on the popular LBC program Kalam an-Nas, Aoun dismissed Berri as merely, “the ally of my ally”.  Though, with that said, I expect these differences will be resolved soon.

Second, on an international level, the Egyptians remain deeply at odds with the Syrians.  While Saudi Arabia has sought to acheive a rapprochement with Syria, I’ve argued recently that it proves elusive.  The pace and the terms of US rapprochement with Syria as well as Washington’s position on a Palestinian national unity government, will greatly impact the dynamics of Syrian-Saudi and Syrian-Egyptian relations.  In other words, I think there are still regional challenges for Syria, though compared to a year ago the moderate Arab states do not seem to be in as strong of a position.

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Egypt arrested 50 Egyptians, Palestinians, and Lebanese accused of plotting aggressive operations in Egypt on behalf of Lebanese Hezbollah.  You can find al-Jazeera’s coverage here, al-Akhbar’s here, and Naharnet’s (in English) here.  Relations between Egypt and the Party of God have been tense ever since the July 2006 War.  During the recent Gaza War Hassan Nasrallah publicly called for Egyptians to mobilize against the government so as to force it to open the Rafah border crossing with Gaza.  Egypt regarded this as an attempt to interfere in its domestic affairs.  Reportedly these Hezbollah cadres rented property along the Suez to observe boat traffic and also carried out reconnaissance in the Sinai.

While I will refrain from further comment until more details become clear, its worth bearing in mind that Israeli tourists frequent Sinai resorts.  Moreover, the Party of God has yet to settle its score with Israel over the Mughneiyeh assassination.  There also seems to be some connection to Hamas, though Hamas has denied any involvement in the incident.  This would most likely entail smuggling weapons or money into Gaza.  However, all this remains speculation for now.

I will comment more on this issue when additional information becomes available.

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Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallim arrived in Tehran yesterday.  Syria News covers the story here, emphasizing that Syria is not serving as an intermediary between Iran and the West over its nuclear program.  The following quote is telling as to Syria’s role:

وقال المعلم إن “إيران دولة مهمة في منطقتنا تساند قضايانا، وعلينا التعامل معها من هذا المنطلق فسورية تبذل كل جهد ممكن في حال ظهرت خلافات بين إيران وبعض الدول العربية لتقريب وجهات النظر لكنها ليست وسيطا في أي من القضايا”.

Muallim said that, “Iran is an important country in our region, supporting our issues.  We must deal with it from this starting point.  So Syria exerts every effort possible to bring closer the points of view in case differences between Iran and some Arab states appear.  But it is not an intermediary in any of the issues.”

At first glance it seems as Muallim is simply clarifying that Syria is not an intermediary, however the statement also suggests that Syria is concerned with bridging differences between the moderate Arab states and Iran.  I explored this point in greater depth last week here.  Unlike the other Arab states, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who regard Iran as a threat and seek to isolate it, Syria tries to draw Iran deeper into Arab affairs.  Syria’s interests remain tied to Iran and it seeks to legitimize rather than marginalize its influence.

The Syrian daily al-Watan reports on the same meeting in today’s edition.  Muallim and his Iranian counterpart Mounshir Motakki discussed Iraq and the Palestinian affairs.  They also reaffirmed the strategic relationship:

ووصل المعلم إلى طهران أمس في زيارة رسمية بحث خلالها مع متقي العلاقات الثنائية بين البلدين حيث أكد الجانبان أهمية استمرار التعاون والعمل المشترك لتعزيز وتطوير تلك العلاقات في مختلف المجالات.

Muallim arrived in Tehran yesterday on an official visit in the course of which he discussed with Motakki the secondary relations between the two countries where the two sides confirmed the importance of continuing cooperation and mutual work to strengthen and develop those relations in different areas.

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I reported yesterday that the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood withdrew from the Opposition National Salvation Front led by Abd al-Halim Khadam last week.  A number of recent articles in the Arab press are worth mentioning.  Also, Prof. Landis at Syria Comment offers some remarks here.

In an-Nahar [by way of] Muhammad Sayid Rasas places the Brotherhood’s shift in the recent historical and political context of the region.  In their 2001 “Pact of National Honor” the Syrian Muslim Brothers rejected violence in favor of democracy, thereby bringing their program closer to the burgeoning liberal Syrian opposition than the ideology of Sayyid Qutb.  This marked a radical reversal of the violent opposition that the organization practiced for much of Hafiz al-Assad’s tenure.

This trend towards moderation continued as the Brothers deepened their ties with other opposition groups, supporting the 2005 “Damascus Declaration” and then in 2006 aligning with Khadam’s National Salvation Front.  Rasas makes a compelling case that these events were primarily driven by regional politics and US foreign policy, rather than domestic factors.  He cites the US invasion of Iraq and subsequent democracy promotion, the US position in favor of “political change” in Syria, and communications between the Egyptian embassy and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, as factors encouraging the Syrian Brotherhood’s efforts to moderate and establish a relationship with Washington.  This phase of the Brotherhood culminated in the June 4, 2006 alignment with Khadam and the National Salvation Front.

Rasas then argues that the July War between Hezbollah and Lebanon marked the beginning of the end for the American backed effort “to reform the region”, which ever since has been in retreat and on the defensive.  Thus, Bayanouni, the leader of the Syrian Muslim Brothers, has sought since January 2009 to distance himself from his alliance with the National Salvation Front and the signers of the Damascus Declaration, realizing that it had become his “death bed”.  In other words, Rasas explains the 2001-2009 phase of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood by the broader trends in regional Middle East politics.

Broadly, this does seem to square with Bayanouni’s comments in Asharq al-Awsat’s piece, where he cites a desire to prioritize Gaza and the Palestinian resistance.  Thus in light of Rasas’s piece, it seems that Bayanouni has read which way the wind is blowing.  He observes the US and Europe’s willingness to hold talks with the Syrian President and understands what this portends for future Western support of Syrian dissidents.

In a piece at Elaph [courtesy of] Nidal N’aisa offers a different perspective.  N’aisa sees Walid Moualim’s recent statement on al-Jazeera that a rapprochement may be possible if the Brotherhood ends its foreign alliances with Syria’s enemies as one of the primary factors driving the Brotherhood’s recent shift.

Frankly, both explanations, Rasas’s focus on international politics and N’aisa’s focus on a domestic shift in the Syrian regime’s position towards the Brotherhood, are relevant.  First, Rasas explains a larger structural dynamic in the region that has been at play in recent years.  This has led to a narrowing of the likelihood of Western support and a greater inclination on the part of the Brothers to seek rapprochement with Damascus.  Second, the Syrian regime’s overtures suggest that Damascus may genuinely be interested in making amends with the Brotherhood.  Though al-Assad will only follow through if he believes that he can completely neuter the Brotherhood as a serious threat.  Third, in my view jockeying for power between the Brotherhood and Khadam’s National Salvation Front in all likelihood also contributed to the fallout.

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Yesterday, news broke that the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood withdrew from the National Salvation Front, a London based amalgamation of Syria opposition groups headed by former Vice President Abd al-Halim Khadam.  Asharq al-Awsat reports here and al-Jazeera covers it here.  Below is an excerpt from the Asharq al-Awsat story:

أعلن الإخوان المسلمون في سوريا انسحابهم من «جبهة الخلاص الوطني» المعارضة التي كانت من أبرز مكوناتها إلى جانب نائب الرئيس السوري السابق عبد الحليم خدام، رداً على ما وصفته بـ«حملة الافتراءات والاتهامات» التي تشنها أطراف في الجبهة عليهم بعد إعلانهم تعليق أنشطتهم المعارضة، في حين رد خدام قائلا في حديث لـ«الشرق الأوسط» إن الإخوان كانوا يشكلون «ثقلا» على الجبهة، وإنهم يجرون حاليا حوارا مع النظام السوري عبر لجنة أمنية شكلت خصيصا لهذا الأمر.

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood announced their withdrawal from the opposition National Salvation Front, in which alongside former Syrian Vice President Abd al-Halim Khadam it was one of the most prominent elements, in response to what it described as a campaign of fabrications and accusations that factions in the Front attacked them with after their [the Brotherhood's] annoucement suspending opposition activities.  Meanwhile Khadam responded to Asharq al-Awsat that the Brotherhood had formed a “weight” on the Front and that they were undertaking dialogue with the Syrian regime through a security committee created for this purpose.

Needless to say the weak Syrian opposition will only be hurt by this fissure.  My knowledge of the current popularity of the Brotherhood is limited, but unlike the other opposition groups and leaders, excepting Khadam, they at least have name recognition throughout Syria.  Moreover,  they also have greater credibility amongst Syria’s Sunni majority than Khadam. 

Earlier this year the Brotherhood suspended its opposition activities in what looks like a sort of thaw between itself and the regime.  According to Ali Sadr ad-Din al-Bayanouni, the leader in exile of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, the Brotherhood wants to focus its “efforts” and “thinking” on Gaza and the resistance, though he alleges that the organization’s opposition to the Syrian regime continues.  For his part, Khadam alleges that negotiations between the Brotherhood and high level Syrian security officials are ongoing though he is not optimistic they will work to the Brotherhood’s advantage. 

Co-opting the Muslim Brotherhood would be quite a coup for the Syrian regime.  They are still regarded as the foremost of the opposition groups, so if al-Assad manages to neutralize the organization it would be a significant show of strength.  Long term, as al-Assad continues to marginalize the Ba’th party and allows additional state controlled party politics under the guise of “democracy”, the Muslim Brotherhood could be a useful pawn, if properly tamed.

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Naharnet posted an interview conducted recently with US Ambassador to Lebanon Michelle Sison.  During the course of the interview Sison said  that she will be giving more interviews than in the past, perhaps this reflects a broader shift in US policy towards a larger emphasis on public diplomacy.  You can find the interview in its entirety here.  The most interesting part was when Naharnet asked the following:

Q-U.S. envoys visiting Lebanon have not been meeting with members of the opposition, particularly Gen. Michel Aoun and Hizbullah. If the opposition wins the elections, will the U.S. boycott a Hizbullah-led government?

A- By U.S. law, by our foreign terrorist organizations law (FTO), we are actually precluded from dealing directly with Hizbullah. So, no, our visitors and our embassy do not engage with Hizbullah.

Q-What if Hizbullah wins the elections?

A- We anticipate that the shape of the U.S. relationship, the shape of the U.S. assistance program, will be evaluated in the context of the new government’s policies and statements. This is a normal thing. No one has a crystal ball at this point. I think we are eight weeks away from the elections. So I won’t hazard a guess for the 128 seats what the margin will be or won’t be. I think day by day, even those who keep score here are having trouble keeping up with all of the developments. It’s a very interesting time politically here. We have said it before but I’ll say it again: We have a long standing policy in effect. Hizbullah has actually been on the FTO list since 1997. So we do not meet with Hizbullah. Now, should Hizbullah renounce terrorism; should Hizbullah renounce terrorism both in Lebanon and abroad and submit to the rule of authority, the rule of law and the authority of the state and the authority of the state institutions — the army — as the sole bearer of weapon. Then, that would give room for reconsideration of this status. But that’s by our law.

Thus, the Obama administration clearly is at odds with Great Britain over the distinction between the “military” and “political” wings of Hezbollah.  Though what would have been more interesting to ask is how would the US shift its stance towards other groups in the Opposition, such as Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (with whom the US has not had meetings since he inked the Memorandum of Understanding with the Party in February 2006), if the Opposition wins.  I expect that unqualified US support for the March 14 movement would be reconsidered and the US would begin dealing with additional members of the Opposition (the US already does meet with Nabih Berry for example).  Still it is hard to imagine US Congress approving military assistance to a Lebanese government headed by the Hezbollah led Opposition.  However, Ambassador Sison explicitly says that the US relationship with Lebanon and the military assistance program will be evaluated in the context of the “new government’s policies and statements”.  Moreover, she said, “You know, we see as allies in the steps forward for Lebanon all who espouse moderate views, all who value Lebanon’s democracy, all who value Lebanon’s sovereignty, all who wish for prosperity and stability and security in Lebanon. That stands not only for March 14th but for a number of independent voices as well.”  One wonders who these “independent voices” are exactly.  These statements suggest that the Obama administration has not closed the door on the Lebanese-American relationship in the event of a Opposition win so long as the government’s platform is palatable by American standards.

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An-Nahar reports today that March 14 is still busy  resolving its candidate list for the elections.  Sunday April 7 is the deadline for submitting candidate names, which also hapens to coincide with a planned Future Movement rally at the BIEL convention center.  However, according to the same an-Nahar article, the Future Movement will announce only its “political document” and “economic program”, and not the final candidates or “electoral program”.  I’m not entirely clear on the significance of such distinctions, though  these nuances suggest that not only the candidates, but also the policies that are to be included in the electoral program have yet to be resolved.

For the March 8 Coalition, there is much more to discuss.  First, in the crucial Beirut 1 District Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement and the Tashnaq Party have announced their candidates:  Issam Abu Jamra, Nicolas Sahnawi, Massoud Achkar, Vreij Sabounjian and Krikor Kaloust.  Moreover, the Tashnaq party aligned itself with the FPM in all districts and Elie Skaff in Zahle.  Tashnaq’s five candidates for the election will be: Arthur Nazarian, George Qassarji, Hagop Pakradounian, Vrej Saboungian and Krikor Kaloust.  This of course means that Tashnaq will not in fact be aligning itself with March 14, despite Hariri’s efforts.  Hariri reportedly offered Tashnaq 4/6 seats alloted to the Armenians in exchange for its supporting March 14’s list throughout Lebanon.  Apparently, March 14, and even moreso Michel Murr, were taken aback by the announcement, as they expected negotiations to continue.  Murr claims that Tuesday the Tashnaq committed to political neutrality after the election, but the statement issued by the FPM and Tashnaq promises a political alliance after the election in addition to the electoral one.  Typically the Tashnaq allies itself with Michel Murr.  However, following Murr’s electoral alliance with March 14 the Tashnaq has decided to remain alinged to Aoun.

Yesterday, Hassan Nasrallah announced the Party of God’s candidates for the elections as well.  The candidates are: MP Mohamad Raad (Nabatieh), Minister Mohamad Fneish and Nawwaf Moussawi (Tyre), MP Hasan Fadlallah (Nabatieh), Ali Fayyad (Hasbayya), Hussein Moussawi as well as MPs Hussein Hajj Hasan, Nawwar Sahili and Ali Miqdad (Baalbeck), MP Ali Ammar (Baabda), Amin Cherri (Beirut-2).  Thus, Hasan Hobballah, Mohamad Haidar and Jamal Taqsh, three current Hezbollah MPs, will not be returning.

In his speech Nasrallah, downplayed the “fateful” and “historic” nature of these Parliamentary elections, by saying the the elections are merely “important”, as are any elections, and that all Lebanese have a responsibility to participate in them.  He also said that the Party had determined its electoral program and Mohammad Raad in the “next days” will reveal it at a press conference or public meeting.  Additionally, contradicting some expectations to the contrary, he emphasized that the aim in the elections is a win for the opposition.  This emphasis on the “opposition” reflects the importance for Aoun’s bloc moreso than the Party of God to win seats if the opposition is to eke out a majority.  To that end, Nasrallah highlighted the fact that the Loyalty to the Resistance bloc (the Hezbollah bloc) is not seeking additional seats for itself.  He also says that following the July War and the emergence of the Lebanese national resistance movement, some claimed in the media that Hezbollah is the leader of the opposition and that the other movements within the opposition follow it.  Nasrallah discounts this notion saying that there is no one movement that leads the opposition, a clear gesture to try to broaden the base of the opposition and entice reticent Christians.  Finally, throughout the speech he seems to go out of his way to to reiterate a commitment to democracy, transparency, and lack of corruption or bribery, particularly with regards to how the candidates were chosen.  He mentions specifically not choosing candidates who are scions of political families.

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Yesterday, following Monday’s gathering of Arab leaders in Doha for the Arab Summit, a joint Arab-Latin American Summit was convened at which leaders such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Brazilian President Lula da Silva, and Argentinian President Cristina Kirchner, met with their Arab counterparts.  Curiously, according to as-Safir’s report, a low-level “clash of civilizations” occurred.  For example, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet referred to the Persian Gulf as the “Persian Gulf” rather than the “Arab Gulf” as per Arab protocol.  Also, when Chavez asked three Lebanese photographers where they were from and they responded Lebanon, Chavez allegedly looked as if he had never heard of “Lebanon” before, which is odd given the large Lebanese community in Venezuela.  The hijinks continued as Chavez asked Yemeni President Ali Abdollah Saleh if he was a Nasserist and then later was seen brandishing a book entitled the “Arab revolution”.  In his address to the summit Chavez urged the Arabs to renew the Nasserist project.  Moreover, the Venezuelan leader expressed his absolute support for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir stating, “The trial is a political weapon because they want to crush the Third World.”  To their credit, both the Argentinian and Brazilian Presidents took offense to the broad Arab support for Omar al-Bashir.

With regards to Syria, the Syrian state owned daily Tishreen carries the following on the Syrian Accountability Act:

وأكد الاعلان ان ما يسمى قانون محاسبة سورية يشكل انتهاكا لمبادئ القانون الدولي وخرقا لاهداف ومبادئ ميثاق الامم المتحدة وسابقة خطيرة في التعامل مع الدول المستقلة مشددا على ان التفاعل وليس العزلة هو الطريق الاكثر فاعلية لتعزيز الحوار والتفاهم بين الدول وان الاجراءات احادية الجانب المستوحاة من قانون محاسبة سورية تمثل عبئا غير مبرر على الاقتصاد والشعب السوري. ‏

The announcement [of the Summit] confirmed that what is known as the Syrian Accountability Act forms a violation to international law and breaches the the aims and principles of the United Nations Charter and is a dangerous precedent in dealing with independent nations.  It emphasizies that interaction and not isolation is the most effective way to strengthen dialogue and understanding between states and that the unilateral measures of the Syrian Accountability Act represent an unjustified burden on the Syrian economy and people.

This illustrates the extent to which many Third World states feel a common unease with the power of stronger states such as the United States.  On another level, it also is a nudge at the US to further its engagement with Syria to try to bring it closer into the Arab fold.

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