The Middle East Channel

Car Bombing in Southern Beirut Kills Five People

A car bomb in southern Beirut, a Hezbollah stronghold, killed at least five people Thursday and wounded an estimated 77 others. The blast was the latest in a series of deadly attacks to hit Lebanon, coming less than a week after a car bomb killed eight people, including former Finance Minister Mohamad B. Chatah. Thursday's attack appears to have been carried out by a suicide bomber, and Lebanese authorities are investigating a 19-year-old man whose identification was left at the scene. Some analysts and Lebanese leaders, directly and indirectly, blamed Hezbollah for the violence because of its military involvement in the Syrian conflict. Meanwhile, Hezbollah's deputy Sheikh Naim Qassem called for the "quick formation of a national unity cabinet" in Lebanon, which has had a caretaker government since the prime minister resigned in March. Clashes broke out in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli following the bombing between residents of the Sunni Bab al-Tabbaneh and Alawite Jabal Mohsen neighborhoods fueled by tensions over Syria.

Syria

Norwegian and Danish ships are expected to set sail again from Cyprus to collect a portion of Syria's chemical arsenal. The original attempt failed mainly due to poor weather conditions, security concerns, and bureaucratic issues. The removal of most of Syria's chemical weapons is part of a deal brokered by the United States and Russia aimed at eliminating the Syrian regime's stockpile by mid-2014. The chemicals are intended to be neutralized aboard the U.S. ship Cape Ray, which has been readied for the mission but currently remains in port in Virginia. Meanwhile, Israeli national security analyst Ron Bergman has claimed Hezbollah has been moving long-range missiles from Syria to Lebanon. The missiles include Scud D missiles, which have the range to hit deep into Israel. Bergman said that despite Israel's undeclared campaign of airstrikes in Syria aimed at halting the missile deliveries, Hezbollah has disassembled and transported to Lebanon most of the long-range surface-to-surface missiles provided by Iran and Syria. Additionally, U.S. officials believe Hezbollah is smuggling Russian anti-ship guided missile systems into Lebanon from Syria.

Headlines  

  • Iraqi security forces are targeting al Qaeda linked militants who maintain control over portions of Ramadi and Fallujah in Anbar province. 
  • The hospital treating Ariel Sharon said, "there is a slow and gradual deterioration" in the former Israeli prime minister's condition.
  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused the Palestinian Authority of incitement upon meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who is pushing for a framework for a peace agreement.
  • Libyan military troops reportedly detained two U.S. basketball players in the eastern city of Benghazi Thursday, however it is not clear why they are being held.
  • Tunisia's national assembly began voting on a new constitution Friday, which must be adopted by January 14. 

Arguments and Analysis

'How al-Qaeda Changed the Syrian War' (Sarah Birke, New York Review of Books)

"In fact, while ISIS and Nusra share many aims, and both are well funded and trained, there are significant differences between the two groups. Jabhat al-Nusra stresses the fight against Assad, while ISIS tends to be more focused on establishing its own rule on conquered territory. Nusra has pursued a strategy of slowly building support for an Islamic state, while ISIS is far more ruthless, carrying out sectarian attacks and imposing sharia law immediately. And while Nusra, despite its large contingent of foreign fighters, is seen as a home-grown problem, Syrians at the border frequently described Da'ash as foreign 'occupiers' in their country.

In its active online media presence ISIS, like some other groups, portrays itself as a social movement with an armed wing rather than a mere rebel group. 'They are there for a political reason: to lay the groundwork for a caliphate,' Charles Lister, an analyst of Syria's rebels, told me. In recent weeks ISIS's attacks in Iraq have increased, making it the bloodiest period since 2008. Much of its activity has focused on the western provinces adjacent to eastern Syria, a stronghold for the group.

ISIS's vision is phenomenally popular with hardline jihadists and their supporters -- more so than Jabhat al-Nusra's -- which helps explain why the conflict has managed to attract so many foreign fighters. Fundraising campaigns on Twitter by such figures as the Kuwaiti Sheikh Hajjaj al-Ajmi indicate that significant money is coming to ISIS from private donors in the Gulf. And on every trip I have made to the Turkish towns along the border with Syria in the last two years, I have come across foreign fighters heading to fight. Many of them in recent months are coming to join ISIS."

'The Jewish State in Question' (Bernard Avishai, New Yorker)

"For the phrase 'Jewish state' also has a third meaning, with legal ramifications dear to the heart of Israeli rightists (including old Labor Zionists in love with the saga of the settler state); laws that derive from the historical application (some would say misapplication) of neo-Zionist ideas and Ben Gurion's rash compromises with rabbinical forces over two generations ago; laws that have left Israel a seriously compromised democracy.

This is not the place to go into all of them. Suffice it to say that this Jewish state allocates public land (over ninety per cent of it) almost exclusively to certified Jews, creates immigration laws to bestow citizenship on certified Jews, empowers the Jewish Agency to advance the well-being of certified Jews, lacks civil marriage and appoints rabbis to marry certified Jews only to one another, founded an Orthodox educational system to produce certified Jews (more than half of Jewish first-graders in Jerusalem attend these), assumes custodianship of a sacred capital for the world's certified Jews -- indeed, this Jewish state presumes to certify Jews in the first place. We are not now talking about a state that recognizes the Passover holiday or provides refuge for victims of anti-Semitic persecution (as the U.S. and many other Western democracies do, by the way). In Israel, having J-positive blood is a serious material advantage.

Such a state must be anathema to Palestinian leaders, who cannot but notice that a fifth (soon, a quarter) of Israeli citizens are Palestinian in origin, and thus are materially, legally disadvantaged by birth: they can recognize Israel but cannot possibly accept this state. But then, it is anathema also to Israeli Jews with ordinary democratic instincts, irrespective of how Palestinians feel about it."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Former Israeli Leader Ariel Sharon in Critical Condition

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, 85, who has been in a coma since a 2006 stroke, is experiencing multiple organ failure and is in critical condition. According to reports on Wednesday, Sharon has been suffering from kidney malfunction. Zeev Rotstein, director of the Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer, where Sharon has been receiving care, said Sharon's situation has worsened and that "there is definitely a threat to his life." While Rotstein said Sharon is not on dialysis, doctors have been administering antibiotics to deal with multiple infections. Rotstein noted, "He's getting all the treatment necessary," but some sources say he is not expected to live for more than a few days.

Syria

Syria has missed a December 31, 2013 deadline for the removal of part of its chemical weapons arsenal. Security concerns, bad weather, and bureaucratic issues caused the delay, according to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) although inspectors maintain the mission is still on track. Norwegian and Danish ships slated to transport the chemical weapons to Italy returned to port in Cyprus after containers failed to arrive in the Syrian port of Latakia. The vessels are expected to return to sea in the coming days. Meanwhile, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that over 130,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011.

Headlines  

  • Lebanese military authorities have arrested Majid bin Muhammad al-Majid, head of al Qaeda linked Abdullah Azzam Brigades, which claimed responsibility for a November attack on the Iranian Embassy in Beirut.
  • The Syrian Electronic Army has claimed responsibility for hacking into the Microsoft-owned Skype's social media accounts Wednesday in an apparent protest against NSA surveillance.
  • Heavy clashes have continued between the military and al Qaeda linked militants in Iraq's Anbar province, meanwhile the death toll in the country reportedly hit 8,868 in 2013.
  • Clashes between Egyptian police and pro-Islamist protesters have killed two people in the coastal city of Alexandria.
  • U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has returned to the Middle East to push for a "framework" for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement as Israel delays an announcement of bids for new settlement construction

Arguments and Analysis

'The Danger of New Iran Sanctions' (Colin Kahl, National Interest)

"The Revolutionary Guard and other hardliners are already fighting a rearguard action against the Geneva agreement, with a war of words breaking out in recent weeks between Zarif and the Guards' top commander, Major General Mohammad Jafari, over the course of Iran's nuclear and foreign policy. These same forces would undoubtedly seize on Congressional legislation threatening new sanctions and demanding de facto nuclear surrender as the latest example of American perfidy, using it to rebut Rouhani's claim that an accommodation with the West that protects core Iranian interests is possible. Hardliners have consistently argued that Iranian compromise is just a prelude to greater U.S. pressure. Khamenei suspects this too. Threatening new sanctions in the immediate aftermath of the first meaningful Iranian concessions in a decade, as the proposed Senate legislation does, risks validating that view.

The Senate bill could also lead to provocative Iranian counter-reactions at an extraordinarily delicate moment for diplomacy. Indeed, nearly one hundred hardline Iranian parliamentarians have already drafted legislation that would mandate escalating enrichment to the nearly-bomb-grade 60 percent level if more U.S. sanctions are imposed. Given thirty-five years of distrust between Tehran and Washington, it would not take much perceived bad faith by either party to reverse the modicum of confidence built at Geneva. It is difficult to imagine negotiations surviving such a tit-for-tat retaliatory cycle."

'A Deadly Mix in Benghazi' (David Kirkpatrick, New York Times)

"The United States waded deeply into post-Qaddafi Libya, hoping to build a beachhead against extremists, especially Al Qaeda. It believed it could draw a bright line between friends and enemies in Libya. But it ultimately lost its ambassador in an attack that involved both avowed opponents of the West and fighters belonging to militias that the Americans had taken for allies.

Months of investigation by The New York Times, centered on extensive interviews with Libyans in Benghazi who had direct knowledge of the attack there and its context, turned up no evidence that Al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault. The attack was led, instead, by fighters who had benefited directly from NATO's extensive air power and logistics support during the uprising against Colonel Qaddafi. And contrary to claims by some members of Congress, it was fueled in large part by anger at an American-made video denigrating Islam.

A fuller accounting of the attacks suggests lessons for the United States that go well beyond Libya. It shows the risks of expecting American aid in a time of desperation to buy durable loyalty, and the difficulty of discerning friends from allies of convenience in a culture shaped by decades of anti-Western sentiment. Both are challenges now hanging over the American involvement in Syria's civil conflict.

The attack also suggests that, as the threats from local militants around the region have multiplied, an intensive focus on combating Al Qaeda may distract from safeguarding American interests."

'Bashar Al Assad: An Intimate Profile of a Mass Murderer' (Annia Ciezadlo, New Republic)

"For years, many Western analysts and diplomats have viewed Assad as malleable, even naïve. But his former aides describe a man who is accustomed to being underestimated and adept at exploiting those misperceptions. Before negotiations, Assad would tell his team to let the other side think they had won: 'Give them always nice words, nice meetings, nice phrases,' Abdelnour recalls him saying. 'They will be happy, they will say good things about us, and they cannot withdraw from it later.' In the end, though, Assad rarely delivers on the concessions that he grants so courteously. He always has an excuse, a variable beyond his control: Yes, he would try to stop the flow of jihadists into Iraq, but he could not police the entire border.

According to another former aide, Assad took pleasure in toying with the West. 'He told me once, "When I sit with the Arabs, it's a session of takazu" -- mutual lying, we say in Arabic,' says the former adviser. 'But when I sit with those foreigners, and you see me on television, really it's a game of Tom and Jerry.'"

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images