The Middle East Channel

Hezbollah Vows to Respond to Air Strike on Lebanese-Syrian Border

In a statement on Al Manar television Wednesday, Hezbollah said it will respond to an Israeli air strike on Monday night that hit near the Bekaa Valley village of Janta on the Syria-Lebanese border. The Lebanese Shiite militant group said, "The new aggression is a blatant assault on Lebanon and its sovereignty and its territory" and continued that it would choose the appropriate time and manner in which to respond. Israel has not confirmed the strike, however an anonymous senior Israeli security official told Time Magazine that Israeli warplanes struck a convoy transporting surface-to-surface missiles from Syria into Lebanon in efforts to prevent the weapons from reaching Hezbollah. Hezbollah's statement noted material damage but denied reports that the air strike targeted artillery or rocket bases or caused any casualties. Security sources reported two trucks transporting missiles and a missile launcher were hit, and that four members of Hezbollah were killed. Additionally, Lebanese security sources said they believed any strike that occurred hit Syrian territory, however, Hezbollah's statement suggested the attack may have taken place on Lebanese soil. While sources have reported at least six Israeli attacks on Syria in 2013, if confirmed, this would be the first case of an Israeli air strike on Lebanese territory since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011.

Syria

Syrian troops have killed 175 rebels in an ambush in the Eastern Ghouta region of the capital of Damascus, according to state news agency SANA. The attack was seemingly the most severe against opposition fighters in months and reportedly mainly targeted fighters from the Islamist groups al-Nusra Front and Liwa al-Islam. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 70 fighters were killed in the ambush, though noted the number could be much higher. It also mentioned that Hezbollah fighters carried out the attack along with government forces. The leader of al Qaeda linked al-Nusra Front Abu Mohammed al-Golani has delivered an ultimatum to rival faction the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) to accept arbitration to end infighting within five days or it would be expelled from Syria "and even from Iraq." The warning has come two days after the killing of al Qaeda envoy and Ahrar al-Sham commander Abu Khalid al-Suri in an attack blamed on ISIL. Meanwhile, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the world has failed Syria, and that the crisis has become a "threat to all." He stated a robust international strategy and the withdrawal of all foreign fighters was necessary to end the conflict.

Headlines

  • An Egyptian court has tried in absentia 26 people and sentenced all but one to death over allegations of forming a terrorist group with the aim of attacking the Suez Canal.
  • Turkey's President Abdullah Gul approved a law Wednesday that would increase government control over the judiciary in a move seen by critics as part of a response to a recent corruption inquiry.
  • Egypt's army chief Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will stay on as defense minister quelling expectations that he is about to announce a presidential bid as Prime Minister Ibrahim Melhlib said he will name a new government within days.
  • Jordanian lawmakers have called for the cancellation of a peace treaty with Israel and riots have erupted in Jerusalem over a Knesset debate on expanding Israeli control over religious sites.

Arguments and Analysis

'Another Election in Libya?' (Tarek Megerisi, Sada)

"The Constitutional Declaration drafted by Libya's National Transitional Council was a small document destined to have a big significance. For within its text -- notably articles 17 through 30 -- lay the vision and framework for the political system that would support the transition. However, this structure has since proved incapable of supporting the weight of Libya's transitional problems. Its mandate -- to produce a constitutional authority by February 7, 2014 -- lies in tatters, and a constitutional assembly is still being formed as the country splits on different visions for the country's future. The Constitutional Declaration clearly provided for the General National Congress (GNC) as the country's ultimate authority. However, other than a provision to appoint a transitional executive authority and article 26's subordination of this executive to the "instructions and directions" of the GNC, the Constitutional Declaration failed to provide any direct responsibilities for either body, nor any clear delineation of power. And the increasingly likely GNC re-election alone is unlikely to address this issue.

The GNC exploited the lack of a clear division of powers to exert its influence over the transitional government from the beginning, evidenced through the debacle of former Prime Minister Mustafa Abu-Shagour's brief tenure. GNC members undermined the very figure they had elected, using their powers to force him out when it became clear his cabinet would not be a mere reflection of the contemporary power groups in the GNC -- as indeed these various groups were demanding. Moreover, conflicts between parliamentary groups, the office of the president, and the various ministries consistently undermined important initiatives ranging from security development to local government reform.  Meanwhile, political groups continuously sought to brand political initiatives and solutions as their own in order to cultivate the image that they are the decisive group in Libyan politics and thus have a right to rule. These attempts to dominate the political scene are the result of the lack of clear responsibilities assigned to different bodies -- be they parliamentary committees, plenary sessions, the executive, or the judiciary. The absence of a clear division of power caused confusion, which facilitated this inter-factional competition that worsened as time went on."

'Looting Along Syria's Borders Prevents Already Scarce Aid From Getting Delivered' (Sophia Jones, Huffington Post)

"Truck drivers waiting along the border, some of whom have traveled more than a month to get here, say the most common good transported to Syria right now is food. They speculate that about half of all the goods consist of humanitarian aid coming from NGOs and aid groups all over the world. The other half, they say, are goods for trading with businessmen across the border: cars, electronics, heavy machinery, building materials. Syrians waiting to cross from Turkey -- on some days, dozens, on others, thousands -- also carry supplies, such as medicine for family members or money for weaponry.

Rumors abound as to who is responsible for the looting. Some Syrians and Turks along the border say extremist rebels are robbing trucks in order to gain control of refugee camps (where aid means power), while others say more moderate rebel groups are capitalizing on a desperate situation. Many, like Ameen, say the refugees themselves are stealing, hungry and desperate for aid that is not evenly distributed. Then there are whispers of Turkish businessmen turned war profiteers, crossing the border to try their hand at black market trade."

--Mary Casey & Cortni Kerr

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Iraq Signs $195 Million Arms Deal With Iran

Iran has signed a deal to sell Iraq $195 million worth of arms and ammunition, according to a report by Reuters, in a move that would violate a U.N. weapons embargo on Iran. Reuters said documents showed that Iraq signed eight arms contracts with Iranian state-owned companies in November, just weeks after Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met with U.S. President Barack Obama requesting additional weapons to fight al Qaeda-linked militants. Maliki would neither confirm nor deny the reports, and the Iranian government denied any knowledge of an arms deal with Iraq. The United States said it is "seeking clarification" over the report, and State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said "If true, this would raise serious concerns." A U.S. official said such a deal could complicate ongoing nuclear talks with Iran.

Syria

Israeli jets launched two raids on the Syrian-Lebanese border late Monday, according to Lebanon's National News Agency. Reports conflict over whether the strikes hit Lebanese or Syrian territory, though Lebanese sources said the raids took place near the village of Nabi Sheet in the eastern Bekaa Valley. The Lebanese army said four Israeli warplanes violated Lebanese airspace at 9:50 p.m. According to a security source, the warplanes hit a suspected Hezbollah weapons convoy. The source added that there is a Hezbollah training site in the area. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that Israeli planes bombed a Hezbollah "missile base." Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would neither confirm nor deny the strikes, but said, "we do all that is necessary in order to defend our citizens." According to U.S. officials, Israel has conducted three strikes on Syria in the past year in efforts to prevent arms deliveries from reaching Hezbollah. Hezbollah's television channel, Al Manar, said there was "no raid on Lebanese territory." Meanwhile, Filippo Grandi, commissioner general of the U.N. relief agency supporting Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, on a visit to the besieged Yarmouk refugee camp in southern Damascus, said he is "deeply disturbed and shaken" by the despair and destruction. The United Nations estimates over 100 people have died since mid-2013 from starvation and illness in the rebel enclave that has been blockaded by pro-regime forces.

Headlines

  • A Turkish opposition party leader has called for an investigation into Recep Tayyip Erdogan for alleged corruption after the prime minister accused his rivals of fabricating an audio recording of him telling his son to dispose of large amounts of money.
  • Seven Egyptian men have been found shot dead on a beach near the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi and authorities said they could not yet "speculate on the motive of the crime."
  • Egyptian interim President Adly Mansour has asked Ibrahim Mehleb, who resigned as housing minister Monday, to succeed Hazem el-Beblawi as prime minister and form a new government.
  • British police have arrested a woman and three men, including former Guantánamo detainee Moazzam Begg, on suspicion of Syria-related terrorism offenses.

Arguments and Analysis

'Bouteflika's Fourth Mandate: The Cartel's Gamble' (Thomas Serres, Jadaliyya)

"In short, the cartel's gamble regards the reaction of the Algerian population. It regards the capacity of the ruling elite to know the opinions and interests of the people. It is, after all, in the name of these people that they pretend to rule. But one would need to be a soothsayer to be able to claim such knowledge. In fact, there are a number of factors that influence the reception of this announcement: certain material interests, the fear of a much-cited potential chaos, political mobilization (or lack there of), and the senses of priority and honor. Also, even if this choice was one between stability and loyalty, as claimed by the servants of the Impotent Prince, it also implies a period of uncertainty. The uncertainty does not concern the relationships of power within the cartel as much as the reaction of those who may see this non-event as one insult too many. 

In the coming weeks, it is not the cries of outrage coming from the editorialists that deserve our scrutiny. Indeed, they have been indignant for many years, and their criticisms have never managed to shake the cartel. However, it would be much more worrisome for the supporters of the status quo should Bouteflika's fourth term become a common theme in the multiple forms of protests that express the persistent and profound nature of popular discontentment. We certainly have not reached this point yet, and there is hardly any doubt that the Direction Générale de la Sûreté Nationale (DGSN) will do whatever is necessary to prevent cross-sector mobilizations, tracking each slogan that exceeds the habitual socio-economic demands. And still, all forms of control have their limits. One should not prematurely judge the quantity of insults that people can stomach without reacting."

'Illicit Trafficking and Libya's Transition: Profits and Losses' (Mark Shaw and Fiona Mangan, United States Institute of Peace)

"Observers often focus on the engagement of the militias in the political process. For many of these groups, however, resources from trafficking and smuggling empowers them and undercuts commitment to peaceful, democratic processes. They may at present not have an interest in outright secession, but the funding from illicit activities is a centrifugal force that encourages armed groups to continue to recuse themselves from the central statebuilding process. Several factors, not least of which is Libya's location along some of the oldest trans-Saharan trade and trafficking routes to Europe, have made the fledging political order particularly vulnerable to organized criminal activity. The very logic of trafficking and smuggling, which relies on tenuous controls of the state's periphery, is an incentive for armed groups to maintain a weak state rather than allow a strong one to be rebuilt. Furthermore, the protection of trafficking routes -- which entails access to arms and maintenance of militias -- not only ensures that these groups are unlikely to be interested in a formal demobilization or disarmament process but also serves to proliferate arms, maintain instability, and promote violence.

The geography of Libya is such that most of the population lives along the northern coastal belt and temperate western highlands, and far fewer people are in the south, where the reach of the state is noticeably weaker, particularly around Sebha in the southwest and Kufrah in the southeast. The coastal belt is divided: On the one hand is the pull of the central state from Tripoli and the urban concentrations in the mountains between Tripoli and the Tunisian border; on the other is the Barqa region to the east with its distinctive political history and culture centered on the city of Benghazi."

--Mary Casey & Cortni Kerr

AZHAR SHALLAL/AFP/Getty Images