December 4, 2013 by John Wreford
The electricity has been out for three hours, I sit in the courtyard watching the flame of a candle flicker, the sound of shelling has stopped but intermittent gunfire still sounds from a few streets away, nothing unusual these days, I try to read but the candle light is not enough, I don’t want to use the LED light as I don’t know when the power will return, I may need the precious light, same for my phone and computer so I just listen to the gun shots and watch the strange shapes the candle casts upon the wall, I can hear my neighbor’s preparing food, the clink of cutlery on plates, the normality of dinner being prepared while a battle is being fought just down the road, I go to lay down, am not tired but bored and maybe I will be woken by the electricity returning.
As soon as I close my eyes the sound of an explosion very close, the house trembles, my heart jumps, I lay still for a second then go to the courtyard, it’s very quiet, all of a sudden more bursts of shooting this time also very close, as always I look to the sky, I can’t see out from my house and can really only gauge things by sound, the shooting only last a few seconds, quiet again, soon I can hear activity in the streets outside, am tempted to go and investigate but I know it’s not a good idea, I sit and wait, it stays calm for a while, then the ping of the fluorescent tube stuttering back to life and the neighbors kids clap as the power returns, I settle down and watch the TV.
Its maybe an hour since the explosion and I hear Raslan running crying along the alley, he’s about 14 years old and wouldn’t look out of place on a farm, a big lad with ruddy cheeks and hands like shovels, he lives next door and hangs out with his friends around the neighborhood, I wonder what has upset him, the explosion earlier is still on my mind.
The doorbell rings, Its Ahmad from next door, he speaks English but we rarely say much more than hello to each other in passing, it’s odd for him to visit unless he wants something, he asks if I heard the explosion, where was it I ask, Bab Salam, just around the corner, they blew up the house he says, twenty people killed, they blew up the house he repeats his voice getting higher, he describes the house and cocks an eyebrow when I indicate I know who’s house it is, opposition fighters crept along the river, not for the first time, shabeha he says referring to the occupants of the house, well known in the Old City for their activities supporting the regime, they have been targeted before, Ahmad is agitated and keeps repeating himself, they blew up the house, today Bab Salam, tomorrow Bab Touma, our alley is between the two ancient gates, who knows what can happen he says, I can’t quite understand his behavior, at first I thought understandably he must be scared but then I started to get the impression he was trying to scare me, I asked about Raslan, oh he said dismissively he lost his ID, I was relieved at that although losing your ID would be plenty of reason to cry in Syria especially these days, am I leaving Ahmad asked, no plans I said, not unless I really have to I told him as I walked him to the door.
The next day I talked with friends about the explosion, Ahmad’s version was typically exageratted, the death toll was one or two not twenty.But his high pitched tone was still ringing in my hears long after the sound of the explosion, they blew up the house, they blew up the house.
December 9, 2013 by Elizabeth Dickinson
In the months after protests first erupted in Syria in 2011, a soft-eyed native of Deir al-Zour province did two things — one he is proud of and another he deeply regrets. As an expatriate living in Kuwait, he was energized by the thought of change back home; he spent his money, devoted his time, and rearranged his life around sending food, medicine, and supplies into suffering Syrian communities.
“We were not heroes [before], but placed in such unusual circumstances, we are somehow heroes,” he said, recalling how he gathered bags of rice, pleaded with his friends for help, and negotiated with stingy drivers to lower the cost of driving the goods from Kuwait through Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and into Syria.
But not long after the charity work began, he and fellow expats joined up with Kuwaiti donors, and a decision was made to help mold military brigades from the opposition. He shook his head and lowered his voice remembering.
“The mistake was to create the armed groups,” he said, almost in a whisper. “We cannot fight a professional army.”
More than two years later, what was once a peaceful uprising in Syria is today a complicated civil war with not just two players but hundreds of armed groups and militias.
Central to that evolution was tiny Kuwait, where thousands of miles away, individuals and religious charities have raised money – possibly hundreds of millions of dollars — for Syria’s armed groups. Kuwaiti patrons helped create, shape, and support among the most extreme brigades fighting President Bashar al-Assad, including the Salafist Ahrar al-Sham and possibly al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, which often collaborates with the former.
The effect in Syria has been devastating; the Kuwait-based expat felt like he has watched things fall apart in slow motion. A cacophony of private donors each built their own rebel brigade. Dependent on independent funding from abroad, the militias grew separately. Gulf states piled in, adding their donations to one faction or another. As he put it simply: “The different money contributed to divide the armed groups.”
Like the Syrian revolution itself, Kuwaiti involvement began out of hope. By the summer of 2011, three Arab regimes had been whisked out of office, and many expected Syria to be the same. Expats living in the Gulf heard stories of young men arrested, boys taken off the streets, protesters shot and wounded. They made lists of families in need and started to remit what charity they could. As the toll grew, businessmen who knew one another — often coming from the same part of Syria — connected and pooled their efforts.
They worked silently at first, for fear that Kuwaiti or Syrian authorities would target them or their beneficiaries. After living for years under dictatorship, even expats abroad mistrusted their colleagues’ allegiances. Would this man tell the Syrian Embassy what we’re doing — sending bread to the families of those in jail?
“Up until now, people fear each other — that they will go tell the embassy,” another expatriate explained. “For a long time, the Syrian regime made us feel this way. It made our minds very bad.”
By the fall of 2011, however, things in Syria had gotten worse. Putting aside their concerns, finally exposing their names, some in the expatriate community began to approach Kuwaiti charities and individuals who had reputations for fundraising. With their long donor lists and deep pockets, these new Kuwaiti benefactors could provide much stronger financial support.
But the new Kuwaiti donors also had ideas about what they wanted to see on the ground — an armed resistance to Assad.
One such charity was a Salafi group known as Turath, or the Revival of the Islamic Heritage Society (RIHS). Under sanction from the U.S. Department of Treasury, it has allegedly funded al Qaeda affiliates from Albania to Azerbaijan, and Pakistan to Cambodia.
“There was an implicit desire from [RIHS]” to create armed groups, the soft-eyed Syrian explained. “They wanted to shorten [the Syrian revolution] by creating defenders groups; they wanted to do more than just to feed them, they needed armed groups to guard from the regime.”
Suddenly in meetings, the donations gathered were no longer divided between food, medicine, and cash. Now, it was partitioned between charity and military support. By early 2012, the fundraising took on a life of its own, broadcast on social media, touted in the mosque. Some donors began traveling to Syria personally. The buzzwords were no longer “food,” “shelter,” and “medicine,” but arms, weapons, and support for the new Syrian mujahideen.
“Brigades and Jihadists are in dire need for aerial protection and anti-tank missiles,” donor Hajjaj al-Ajmi tells his supporters in a video from Syria. These weapons “are in scarcity, more than they need qualitative weaponry which is assumed to having entered the country.” Victory, he assures, will come from God.
As the brigades took shape, each armed group designated a Syrian representative in Kuwait to make the pitch for support. Like businessmen selling their emerging enterprise, they sat with Kuwaiti sheikhs for tea, arguing over who had more martyrs and fought harder battles with the regime. Many of these new armed groups then took on the ideological identity of their Kuwaiti backers, whether just to win financial support or out of true belief — a way to ascribe meaning to the atrocities they were witnessing.
In a matter of months, this unpredictable flow of financial support from a slew of individual fundraisers had helped split the Syrian opposition — as even some donors themselves began to see.
“This huge number of supporters has resulted in a serious problem: It made every brigade think that it doesn’t need the other brigades,” said Jamaan Herbash, a former member of the Kuwaiti parliament (MP) who has also raised money for Free Syria Army-linked brigades. “For example, Liwa al-Tawhid doesn’t need Ahrar al-Sham, just as Ahrar al-Sham doesn’t need al-Nusra.”
Nor did the rebels win quickly, as the donors had hoped. By 2013, their base of support in Kuwait began to shrink and become more extreme. Increasingly, the donors framed the conflict as an existential one between an Iran-supported Shiite regime and them, the Sunni world.
“Doesn’t the perseverance of the people of Syria make you feel obliged to do jihad against criminals?” one donor, a Salafi cleric named Shafi al-Ajmi, asked on Twitter last month. “Even if this goes on, join hands and regard the dealings of Iran and Hezbollah of the devil.”
Like that first group of Syrians, Ajmi had a goal for the revolution — but a very different one. He has backed Ahrar Al Sham. He has engaged in poisonous sectarian rhetoric against minorities and some of his funding went to a rebel assault in the northern port city of Latakia that left hundreds of Shiite civilians dead.
“Be sure that the victory is close,” he assured his supporters on Twitter in October. “The number of battles has increased in every province, and in every battle, there are at least six brigades, which hasn’t happened in the past. Their number will be increasing soon.”
Today, the same fear that permeated their initial work has returned for expats like the heartbroken Syrian man in Kuwait City. It’s not a fear of Kuwaiti authorities; it’s not a fear of the regime in Damascus. It’s a fear that extremist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra will prevail in controlling the opposition. It’s a fear that the first victims of this second tyranny will be them, the moderates, who only wanted to help. Like children of the revolution, they will be eaten first.
December 6, 2013 - Homs - Abdul Baset Al Saroot leads a wedding in the city
December 9, 2013 by AFP
ROME - The exodus of refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria represents a security threat to the European Union, Italy’s foreign minister said Monday, warning that potential terrorists could be among the displaced.
"Like all major humanitarian crises", the Syria conflict "has political aspects and consequences that can have devastating effects", Emma Bonino told reporters in Rome.
"If you consider displaced people, refugees and immigrants, we have millions of people moving around the southern Mediterranean,"she said.
"We have many reasons to believe that among the women and children, there are also less friendly immigrants - ex-jihadists or members of Al-Qaeda."
"It is clear that uncontrolled landings on our shores have implications for the security of the European Union."
While Bonino underlined the war in Syria as the main reason for displacement, she said poverty in the Sahel, insecurity in Somalia and lawlessness in Libya added to the problem.
"In the absence of any control over its territory, Libya is today becoming a sort of freeway where anything gets through - weapons, drugs," she warned.
The EU has been examining proposals to beef up border surveillance and open up legal channels to reach Europe to deal with the boats packed with Syrian refugees that have been arriving in southern Italy.
December 9, 2013 by Maya Gebeily
Researcher and analyst Phillip Smyth breaks down the complexity of Syria’s ongoing war
If Syria’s war was ever a simple, two-front battle, it certainly isn’t now. Almost three years since the start of the conflict, the country’s battlefields are teeming with fighters of different sects, nationalities, and ideologies. To help shed light on this war’s growing complexity, NOW spoke with Phillip Smyth, analyst and researcher at the University of Maryland, about the growing numbers of Shiite militias, Hezbollah’s role in Syria, and the fate of the region’s Christians.
NOW: The main pro-Assad Shiite militia (sometimes the only one) that gets mentioned in the media is Hezbollah. Why do you think the Iraqi Shiite militias haven’t been focused on as much, and what should we know about their role now and in a future Syria?
Phillip Smyth: Even when focusing on Lebanese Hezbollah, this is a very murky world and hard to cover. Hezbollah has name recognition, but when we discuss other Shiite militias, we’re just calling them: “Iraqi Shiite militias.” This essentially makes them appear almost amorphous, divorcing them from their proxy-masters and their goals. Naming the groups is important (to rectify this, here are some of the main Iraqi Shiite Islamist groups sending men to Syria: Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, Kata’ib Hezbollah, the Badr Organization, and Kata’ib Sayyed al-Shuhada).
It’s important to remember that the Iraqi Shiite organizations and Lebanese Hezbollah are very professional and know how to reveal information in a manner that fits a narrative-building pattern. These groups also know how to keep their mouths shut if some journalist is asking too many questions. Iran’s many proxies also craft successful fronts which confuse the hell out of most observers. Take for example Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba (AKA Harakat al-Nujaba). They are an Iraq-based front which funnels fighters to Syria and primarily act as a front for the Iran-backed Iraqi Shiite Islamist Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Kata’ib Hezbollah. However, once these fighters get to Syria, I have identified that they fight under the banners of three separate militia groupings.
NOW: Why are Shiite militant groups an entity to watch in Syria?
Smyth: They are well-trained, well-equipped, in most cases ideologically motivated, and over the course of 2013, have publicly engaged in major offensive and defensive operations throughout Syria. Without them, we would be looking at a far more stagnant type of battlefield. Beyond that, their fight is not one which is just based around “defending Assad”.
While this is exactly what they are doing, the war has been cast as an internal battle within Islam. These Shiite fighters are, in their minds, defending “true Islam” against what they have branded a “takfiri” enemy. Thus, even though it is a narrative, it’s now viewed as a religious-ideological conflict.
If anything, their future role in Syria is being written in East Ghouta, southern Damascus, parts of rural and urban Aleppo, Qusayr, and Qalamoun today.
NOW: Do the various Shiite militias, along with the Assad regime’s forces, operate in any kind of hierarchy? Can Syria’s Arab Army do any of this on their own, or will they need Iranian, Iraqi, and Lebanese support to hold any territory in the foreseeable future?
Smyth: The Shiite fighting groups, National Defense Forces, localized pro-Assad militias, Syrian Arab Army, and the Republican Guard all cooperate together. Often combat commanders from the Republican Guard, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and from Lebanese Hezbollah are attached to the many mainly Iraqi-staffed militias. This does not mean that some Iraqi Shiite fighters haven’t taken on command roles. For instance, Abu Hajar, the late-leader of Liwa Zulfiqar, was Iraqi. His successor is also an Iraqi Shiite. In terms of cooperating with the Syrian Arab Army, these groups tend to work well with that force.
Needless to say, this does not necessitate all of these groups have not had their own problems with one another. Iraqi and Lebanese fighters have been recorded criticizing the lack of professionalism in Assad’s forces. Back in June, Reuters even published a story about a firefight which broke-out between the well-trained Iranian-backed Iraqi fighters and Syrian fighters and commanders in Damascus. This led to the former being granted their own command structure, separate from that of the Syrian Arab Army. That is certainly a big deal. Regardless, these armed forces cooperate quite a bit and work as cohesive fighting units.
The question dealing with holding territory is really a hard one. This has been the main problem for forces on all sides (rebel and pro-Assad). For the time being, I have found that the Shiite Islamist militias are important when it comes to taking certain areas and are definitely required on a number of fronts. At times, I have seen them involved in actually holding key zones; Damascus Airport and the areas around it are a prime example. I’m sure this will continue. However, as history has taught us, outside fighting forces regularly have a harder time holding territory in a foreign country. Only time can really tell where this will all go. One shouldn’t completely write out the Syrian Arab Army or the National Defense Forces yet. They are fighting pretty hard.
NOW: What does Syria teach us about the growth of transnational jihadist groups? Is the US – and are its allies – prepared to deal with security threats from these kinds of groups?
Smyth: On the Shiite Islamist side, Syria has demonstrated that Iran is going to be leading the pack when it comes to that brand of jihadist operating in the region.
I’m a tad too self-deprecating to be able to say, “Yes, the United States and its allies can handle all of these threats!” or “Absolutely not! Head for the hills!” Threats from across the board are all growing at a very fast rate and everyone is trying to find an answer to them. Regularly (and unfortunately), policy comes down to a “Too little, too late” type of proposition. Policymakers have to pick-up the pieces and make the best of it. Hopefully those policy makers have put some plans into place.
NOW: What everyone wants to know: how will the recent interim Iran deal affect the Islamic Republic’s involvement (and by extension, Hezbollah’s involvement) in Syria?
Smyth: They’re still engaged in heavy fighting in Syria. Lebanese Hezbollah is still announcing the deaths of its fighters from combat in Syria. At the beginning of December, Iran reported the deaths of 10 Afghan Shiite fighters in Syria. It’s pretty ludicrous to think that these negotiations would magically cause Tehran to just tell their regional proxy forces, and their own combatants, to pick up and leave.
NOW: What do you see as Hezbollah’s exit strategy from Syria? Is there one?
Smyth: Why would they need an exit strategy now? They are still engaged in very heavy fighting and are continuing to throw the “Qadimoun ya Qalamoun” (“We are coming O Qalamoun”) rhetoric out onto friendly media organs, their social media, and out to Western journalists. Like any military force fighting, they want to make more substantive gains in their combat zone.
NOW: How has Hezbollah’s internal stance in Lebanon has been affected by its fighting in Syria? How about the group’s regional popularity?
Smyth: I think it’s very hard to tell how “damaged” the group is in Lebanon – even if one is sitting in Dahiyeh. Hezbollah holds a tremendous amount of power, particularly over the Shiite community.
I think another overlooked trend, which I’ve written about, but am still attempting to fully grasp, is how Iran and Hezbollah have actually succeeded in pulling more Shiite Muslims under their umbrella. It’s important to note that most of the region’s Shiite are neither adherents of the Wilayat al-Faqih (governance of the Islamic jurist) ideology nor believe that Ayatollah Khamenei is their marja’a taqlidi. Many still subscribe to more traditional interpretations of Shi’ism, which are more apolitical. Just look at how Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has addressed the conflict in Syria; he doesn’t support the sending of Shiite fighters to the country.
Still, in recent history, especially in the Middle East, Shiite Islam has suffered an almost endless campaign of bombings and attacks by groups like al-Qaeda. When I speak to Shiite friends, some are more than willing to say (and I paraphrase), “fine, we’ll accept Iranian protection. They are the only ones truly protecting the Shiites.” Thus, Iran is slowly succeeding among Shiite muslims in the role of a hard-power protector from both real and imagined “anti-Shiite” forces. This will have some very important implications going into the future.
NOW: Looking at the history of Hezbollah and how they’ve developed, how do we fit in their involvement in Syria? Does it indicate a turning point in the organization’s “identity?”
Smyth: Regarding the adoption of “new identities,” I feel this is a false concept. Hezbollah has reaffirmed time and time again that they back Wilayat al-Faqih. When the Lebanese nationalist, Arabist, and other types of rhetoric were showcased on previous occasions, these were simply fig leaves. Their ideological allies like Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Kata’ib Hezbollah in Iraq have also sung the same tunes, but their end goals are pretty transparent.
However, in terms of where the messaging rhetoric is going now, there is already a shift toward the adoption of Shiite Islamist rhetoric. They haven’t dropped the pan-Islamic tone of Wilayat al-Faqih – but the messaging style has dipped into a more sectarian pattern. Hezbollah’s Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah was very clear about this back in August. It has also been a continuing trend on social media.
Nasrallah is walking a tight rope due to the war in Syria, so the messaging pattern is still mixed. An additional rhetorical tone is the: ‘Our ideological view is the only true Islam.’ Thus, we’re also seeing an intra-Islamist war for the “future of Islam[ism]”.
NOW: Syria’s Christian population is of particular concern when the future of the country’s minorities gets brought up. What do you see as the future of Syria’s Christians? Have they been left without a protector?
Smyth: Regionally speaking, the condition for Christians is just plain bad. They have been politically marginalized, have fewer prospects when it comes to finding common political ground with other coreligionists, and are leaving the region en masse.
It’s pretty obvious that Syria is not the best place for Christians at the moment. Don’t let me give you the wrong idea, there are some rebel controlled areas which provide effective security for Christians. I still need to nip this in the bud: I know some will say, “But __ [Islamist] group wants to ‘protect’ Christians.” Let’s get real. Middle Eastern Christians don’t consider a dhimma-type of existence ideal.
Currently, specific anti-Christian violence and ethnic cleansing has not reached Iraq levels, but with the multitude of radical actors now in Syria and their history, it may be down the road. Of course, Syria is not Iraq and many Christians have sought a sort of junior partner status with either Bashar al-Assad or the Kurdish PYG.
Right now, Russia, Bashar al-Assad, Iran, and Iran’s proxies (particularly Lebanese Hezbollah) are taking the lead on acting as the new “protectors”. The material that is presented markets a sort of minority Shiite-Christian alliance for Assad and Hezbollah.
NOW: Although Hezbollah has been loyally expending its resources and fighting forces on behalf of the Assad regime, there is at least one important disagreement between the two – Assad and his “people” inside Lebanon have an interest in destabilizing Syria’s smaller neighbor, while Hezbollah, for the sake of its domestic stance, needs to maintain stability in Lebanon. Will this difference ever spark a bigger split between the two?
Smyth: I doubt it. There have also been differences on the battlefield in Syria between other Iranian-backed forces (primarily Iraqi Shiite) and the Syrians. Yet, they’re still cooperating and fighting hard. The stakes are too high and I would assume that Hezbollah, Iran, and the Syrians have tried to piece together an acceptable working relationship when dealing with Lebanon.
NOW: Opposition groups said they wouldn’t stop fighting before the Geneva II conference took place in January, thereby essentially declaring the irrelevance of the talks to developments inside Syria. Others have claimed that pro-regime and opposition groups will, at least subconsciously, see Geneva II’s date as a kind of deadline to secure some crucial territories (Qalamoun and others). What’s your take on the relevance of Geneva II to the events on the ground?
Smyth: The talks were irrelevant from the start due to a multitude of factors—from rebel multipolarity to Assad’s (and his allies’) own machinations. I’m not that convinced that Geneva II will produce anything substantive. Though, I wouldn’t put it past Assad and his supporting forces to have launched their recent offensives in an effort to secure territory prior to Geneva II. It can be another development which can be shown off to international actors that “Assad is here to stay and should not be meddled with.” This would further constrain the already limited pressure Assad is currently feeling from primarily Western states.
"On the Shiite Islamist side, Syria has demonstrated that Iran is going to be leading the pack when it comes to that brand of jihadist operating in the region."
December 9, 2013 by AJE
Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad secure key Damascus-Homs highway after two-week siege.
The road needed to ship chemical weapons out of Syria has been seized by troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.
The Damascus-Homs highway had been blocked for around 20 days, preventing the delivery of fuel to the capital, as troops battled with rebel fighters to secure control of the town of Nabaak.
The Syrian army has been fighting for several weeks to secure the Qalamoun region, north of Damascus, in a bid to sever rebel supply routes across the nearby border with Lebanon.
"We’re hearing that the eastern part of Nabak is falling to regime forces, fighting alongside Hezbollah fighters," reported Al Jazeera’s Andrew Thomas from the Lebanese capital, Beirut.
"We don’t have accurate casualty numbers, but it is understood to be a heavy toll."
The Al-Watan newspaper, which has close ties with Assad’s administration, quoted a military source as saying government forces had killed or captured some 100 opposition forces in the town, and seized a large weapons cache.
On Sunday, a top ranking Hezbollah commander, Ali Bazzi, was among the dead in the fight for the Qalamoun region.
Women and children have also been among the dead during the fighting in Nabaak. One woman who spoke to Al Jazeera said she found several bodies in a house in the town on Sunday.
"We came down to the basement here to find this entire family lying dead," she said. "They were executed by guns. Each one of them received more than 50 bullets. There are still another five, we are sure they were also executed, but we do not know where they are."
Civilians had been trapped in the town during a two-week siege, and there was a serious lack of medical supplies, said our correspondent.
The world’s chemical watchdog said on Sunday that the transportation of Syria’s chemical arsenal out of the country could be delayed, due to technical difficulties.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons had previously planned to rid the country of the highest priority weapons among its stockpile by the end of the year.
"This may not be possible perhaps because of the technical issues that we have encountered," OPCW director Ahmet Uzumcu said on arrival in Oslo - where he will on Tuesday receive the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of his organisation.
Despite the possible hold-up, Uzumcu said he was “confident that we will be able to meet the deadline of June 2014 to destroy all chemical weapons in Syria”.
In total, 1,290 tonnes of chemical weapons, ingredients and precursors are to be destroyed.
December 8, 2013 by AJE - Syrian refugees flee fighting in Qalamoun
Fighting in the Qalamoun region of Syria has escalated. Activists say seven children have been executed in the town of Nabak. Al Jazeera’s Andrew Simmons talks to eyewitnesses who fled to Arsal in Lebanon.
December 9, 2013 - 1,000 days of conflict in Syria
December 8, 2013 by AFP
AFP/Sam Skaine - A picture taken on December 3, 2013 shows soldiers loyal to regime forces walking with their weapons near al-Nabak on the outskirts of Damascus, where they battle with rebel fighters
A top military commander of Hezbollah, which is helping Syrian troops battle rebels, died in fighting Sunday in Syria, a Lebanese security source said.
"Ali Bazzi, a high-ranking Hezbollah military commander, was killed today in a combat zone," the source said without specifying the location.
Earlier the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that Hezbollah fighters died Sunday during battles in Nabuk, one of the last rebel-held areas in the Qalamoun region bordering Lebanon.
"There is fierce fighting in Nabuk between government forces, backed by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, and Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant," said the watchdog.
A website for Bint Jbeil, Bazzi’s hometown in southern Lebanon, also announced the commander’s death and posted pictures of him in military garb and holding an automatic rifle.
"Ali Hussein Bazzi… died a martyr as he was carrying out his sacred duty as a jihadist," read the announcement.
Meanwhile residents of southern Lebanon said that two other Hezbollah fighters — Ali Saleh and Qassem Ghamloosh — were also killed in Syria on Sunday and buried.
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has repeatedly defended his group’s involvement in Syria.
On Tuesday he said in an interview with Lebanese broadcaster OTV Hezbollah is fighting in Syria to protect Lebanon from the Syrian rebels, who include jihadists linked to Al-Qaeda.
Hours after that interview Hezbollah announced the death of one of its leaders shot dead near Beirut, blaming Israel for his murder.
The Syria war has sparked sectarian tensions in Lebanon among supporters and opponents of President Bashar al-Assad.
December 7, 2013 by Michael Weiss
The recently-filmed Maalula nuns may still be at risk from the fight to control Syria’s highways
Al Jazeera released a video yesterday showing a dozen Greek Orthodox Syrian and Lebanese nuns thought to have been kidnapped by Islamist rebels, including the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, on Monday from the Mar Taqla convent in the ancient Christian town of Maalula. They are presented alive and physically unharmed, sitting in a spacious living room. Their location is unknown, although it believed to be somewhere in the nearby rebel-held town of Yabroud.
Lying just north of Damascus, Maalula – where some residents speak Aramaic, the language of Christ – has traded hands several times during the past several months of the Syrian civil war. But this week, the town was re-invaded by rebels after explosive-laden tires were hurled into a regime checkpoint.
The whereabouts of the missing nuns has been a source of grave international concern, with appeals for their release coming from Greek Orthodox patriarch John Yazigi and no less a figure than Pope Francis, who asked a general audience at the Vatican to pray for their release.
According to The Daily Star:
"[A] group calling itself the Free Qalamoun Battalion demanded the release of 1,000 Syrian women detainees as part of a swap deal to secure the release of the nuns seized from a convent in Syria.
“The nuns are in a safe place, but they will not be released until several demands have been implemented, most notably the release of 1,000 Syrian [women] held in the prisons of the Syrian regime,” the group’s spokesman, Mohannad Abu al-Fidaa, said in comments to pan-Arab Asharq al-Awsat published Friday.
"Fidaa said the group’s demands were conveyed to the Syrian regime through the Vatican after establishing contact between the head of the Mar Takla monastery, Mother Pelagia Sayyaf, and the Vatican by a satellite-operated phone.
"He said the demands were made jointly by the Free Qalamoun Brigades and the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front."
However, media activist Amer al-Qalamooni said today, “We in Qalamoun don’t have a battalion by the name of Ahrar al-Qalamoun.” A social media search for the battalion and its supposed spokesperson, Mohannad Abu al-Fidaa, has similarly turned up nothing.
Given that the nuns have not yet been returned to their convent or independently be in touch with their church, the following statements – in which they claim that they were neither kidnapped nor taken hostage but rather provided refuge from shelling in Maalula – should be treated with some skepticism. They do at one point break into laughter after saying they’re set to leave in two days, but viewers may judge for themselves whether or not anything they claim in this video has been said under duress. Note, though, that the women do not implore the “opposition” to refrain from shelling holy sites in Maaloula, as The Daily Star write-up of this broadcast maintained, but simply asked that “the shelling” stop completely. Below is a full translation of the Al Jazeera broadcast, courtesy of Mohammad Ghannam.
Announcer: Al-Jazeera has obtained video footage of the nuns from Saint Thecla Convent (Mar Taqla) in Maalula. The nuns confirm they are safe and that they left the convent because of intense shelling that Maalula was witnessing. The nuns are expecting to be released in two days. Al Jazeera has not verified the date of the footage, but we believe it was shot yesterday.
Nun 1: We would like to reassure the whole world, because we know many are concerned about us and it’s heartening that we are still in people’s thoughts. As for seeking refuge from the convent, we were told that intense shelling might happen, and that we might be hurt in the shelling, so to ensure our safety, we had to evacuate the convent. So we left and there was shelling, but we pressed ahead. May God protect everyone.
Videographer: Was anyone injured? Was there fighting during your escape, or where you’ve been staying since?
Nun 1: Yes. When we first set out, there was very much intense shelling, but the cars sped up and drove very fast. We made a quick trip to the safe house we were brought to. We can say nothing but “may God reward them greatly for the services they provided us.” We would like to thank those they sent over to host us and give us food, drink, medical attention, and comfortable surroundings.
Videographer: Some reports indicated that you were in a cave or out on the street, or that those who evacuated you hurt you, or that one of the nuns was killed.
Nun 1: No, no, no. This didn’t happen at all. You can count us here: 13 nuns and three civilians. We’re still here, we’re staying in a villa. A very beautiful villa. We came here, but we’re leaving in two days [laughter].
Nun 2: We want shelling of holy places to stop – of churches, mosques, holy sites. And for peace to take place. We left due to the heavy shelling. The people [who evacuated us] were compassionate; they evacuated us and took special care of us. We are very pleased with them. They provided us with everything we need.
Videographer: Would you like to say anything to the people who may be concerned about you, or your relatives? [inaudible] Would you like to send a message to people waiting for you?
Nun 3: I’d like to tell my family that in two days we will be released and that we’re okay. We’re fine.
Videographer: Can we say that you’re abducted or held hostage?
Nun 3: No, they just moved us to a safe house because of the shelling.
Videographer: So now you’re safe from shelling?
It should also be noted that Yabroud, where the nuns are believed to be held, is quite close to the town of Nabek, a crucial frontline for the regime. As of Monday, the regime has recaptured most of it and, as the Associated Press reported,
“reopened the highway linking Damascus with the central city of Homs. A government official, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, said that although the road was opened it is still dangerous because of fighting in nearby areas.
"The highway is a key road leading to Syria’s coast and could open the way for transporting the country’s chemical weapons to be sent to the port of Latakia before they are taken out of the country for destruction.”
Indeed, The New York Times reported yesterday that the most difficult phase of Syria’s chemical disarmament will be transporting toxic materials out of an active and fluid war zone:
“[T]he most dangerous materials would be sealed by trained Syrians and sent overland to the country’s Mediterranean port of Latakia, where ships would take them to a second, unspecified foreign port.”
"From there, the official said, the chemicals would be transferred to a specially equipped naval vessel offered by the United States, which is capable of safely neutralizing the chemicals at sea."
"The official, Sigrid Kaag, acknowledged that the overland routes in Syria were dangerous because of the civil war, but that the Syrian authorities were taking steps to secure them and had designated Latakia as the departure point for the chemicals.”
The Times didn’t specify who would train the Syrians to handle this mission impossible, but we can expect that the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is the likely candidate.
What this means is that the United States, the United Nations, and the Assad regime are all working in concert, and with a collective responsibility, to ensure that the regime’s military – which now consists not just of regular army soldiers but also Iranian-trained proxies – must seize and secure vital roadways for transporting chemical agents to Latakia. (Don’t expect the White House or State Department to concede this point).
All of this is the long way of stating that the Maalula nuns may have just become accidental victims of international plans to rid Syria of its chemical weapons.