Posts Tagged ‘Tripoli’

Will the raging fire in Syria reach the cedars of Lebanon?—Obama’s Debacle in Syira — Update #77 (August 24)

Friday, August 24th, 2012

If you’ve ever attended a conference at the Commodore Hotel or walked near the American University in West Beirut, or had a drink at a lively bar or eaten lunch in Ashrafiieh, in East Beirut, you may have some sense of the charms of Lebanon and its capital city. If you’ve driven around Beirut and seen the way the center of the city near the Green Line has been rebuilt following the long civil war (1975-1990), or witnessed the variety of religious beliefs represented in the dress of women at one of the busy shopping malls, and seen how despite their differences Lebanese seem to manage getting along with each other, you may have some idea of their achievement in building a country with a working democracy and a strong civil society, after a devastating civil war, in a place where the tectonic plates of Islamic and Christian civilizations come together.

And if you’ve ever studied a little bit of Lebanon’s history, from the development of the alphabet at Byblos and the Phoenicians to the Romans and the Crusaders to the present, and particularly since the landing of U.S. marines in 1958 to stabilize the existing order and the sudden withdrawal of U.S. marines on a separate mission, following the deaths of 241 American marines and 58 French servicemen from a truck bombing at their headquarters in Beirut in 1983, you may have some sense of the delicate balance of forces at play in Lebanon, and the careful efforts of the Lebanese themselves to avoid a return to civil war. Nor do they wish to return to the enforced peace which existed under Syrian occupation until the Syrians were forced to withdraw following the assassination of Rafiq Hariri in 2005. The Syrian withdrawal resulted from what came to be known as “the Cedar Revolution”, led by forces now known as “the March 14 Alliance” (not to be confused with their opponents, the “the March 8 Alliance”).

The government, representing a finely-balanced equilibrium between opposing alliances, seems perennially on the verge of collapse. Before the Arab Spring reached Syria and exploded into civil war as a result of Bashar al-Assad’s use of terror in attempting to suppress it, a huge issue which threatened political stability in the country was whether the government would pay its share of the expenses of the international Special Tribunal for Lebanon set up by the United Nations to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the Hariri assassination. This became a burning issue when it became known that the Tribunal was planning to issue, and then issued, indictments against members of Hezbollah for their involvement in the Hariri assassination. Somehow, through a number of crises, the Lebanese were able to work out a solution to this problem. Lebanon paid its share of the Tribunal’s budget without Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, bringing down the government or even seizing control of Beirut’s southern suburbs (and other parts of the city) and the southern part of the country, in addition to the Bekaa Valley, which through his actions he had threatened to do in the past. Somehow, Lebanon muddled through.

Culturally, Lebanon has played a very special role in the Arab imagination, a fact reflected in many Egyptian films, as a romantic and holiday destination. It is also known as a place of personal and intellectual freedom where individuals of different nationalities and political, religious and ethnic backgrounds can come together, in order to meet, exchange ideas, negotiate, and enjoy the vibrant music and cultural scene. Lebanon’s cultural life is now broadcast through the Arab world by satellite television channels including LBC.

The love songs and melodies of Farouz, perhaps the best known singer in the Middle East in the last 50 years, are known throughout the Arab world and beyond.

Yet the toll of the Lebanese Civil War on the people of Lebanon was horrendous.

Now, the carefully constructed peace and political balance in Lebanon, built on the ruins of that war, is in great danger of being rendered by the raging forces of the civil war in Syria, which has recently spilled over into Tripoli and northern Lebanon. Moreover, the former Lebanese Minister of Information, Michel Samaha, has been arrested with explosives on charges he brought explosives into Lebanon with the intent of bombing crowds and assassinating Sunni leaders supportive of the Free Syrian Army, in coordination with Syrian intelligence officials.


Misbah al-Ali and Antoine Amrieh, “Tripoli trapped in Syria quagmire,” The Daily Star, August 25, 2012 (12:48 a.m.).

“Syria spillover clashes escalate in Lebanon; Killing of Sunni leader by sniper fire reignites violence that has left 17 people dead in Tripoli over last five days,” Al Jazeera, August 24, 2012.

Damien Cave, “Syrian War Plays Out Along a Street in Lebanon,” New York Times, August 23, 2012.

Damian Cave, “Syria Seen as Trying to Roil Lebanon,” New York Times, August 21, 2012.

Victor Kotsev, “Assad opens regional Pandora’s box,” Asia Times (online), August 25, 2012.

Donna Abu-Nasr, “Foiled Lebanon Bomb Plot Raises Concern of Spread
from Syria,” Bloomberg, August 20, 2012.

This spill-over has been largely due to the passivity of the West and the Arab countries and the civilized nations of the world, in the face of Russian and Chinese blocking actions in the U.N. Security Council.  The West and their allies have shown an appalling lack of resolve in standing up to the terror in Syria orchestrated by Bashar al-Assad, with material and political support from Russia, Iran and China.

If the West and the Arab countries and Turkey had intervened early with the calibrated use of military force to halt al-Assad’s atrocities, would the civil war have reached its current dimensions or intensity?

Revealingly, Dimitri Simes, a well-known Russian expert, stated on the PBS Newshour on June 13, 2012, that he had just had a number of conversations in Moscow with key officials, and had come away with the clear impression that if the West and the Arab countries were to intervene with military force, the Russians would not be happy and would complain loudly, but in the end would be prepared to accept the fact of the intervention.


Let me say, however, again something Michele Dunne said which I find quite interesting, and I don’t know whether she had it in mind, but perhaps she did, namely, that nobody said we’re not entitled to act without U.N. Security Council blessing. And as one official in Moscow put it to me, well, look, if the United States feels very strongly that force has to be used and is determined to act, let the United States and NATO do it without U.N. Security Council blessing, the way it has happened in the case of Kosovo, the way it has happened in Iraq.

The Russians obviously would criticize that. They wouldn’t want a decision which doesn’t give a role to the U.N. Security Council. But if that is the only way to resolve the situation, I think they would be prepared to live with that.

–PBS Newshour, June 13, 2012.

Even if Simes’ assessment was accurate at the time, the Russian position has since evolved sharply to one of direct confrontation with the West.

The civil war in Syria is like a large and growing forest fire which outsiders have decided to allow to grow in intensity and extension, hoping that it will burn itself out before it consumes their homes and livestock and other precious goods.

But the fire has shown no signs of burning itself out. On the contrary, every day it seems to find new and endless supplies of dry underbrush and dry wood to feed its fury.

This fire could spread to Lebanon very easily. Some of its flames have already lapped across the borders. The only questions are whether the fire marshals, who have up till now been steadily explaining why they cannot intervene without knowing which way the fire will go and ultimately who will dominate the ruins it leaves behind, will call in the fire brigades to halt its advance, and if so when.

The Trenchant Observer

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U.S. Covert Action in Syria?—Obama’s Debacle in Syria — Update #40 (May 22)

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

The “Covert Commander in Chief” and America’s real policy toward Syria

Indeed, as pointed out in our previous article, statements from Obama and his administration at the G-8 summit at Camp David do appear clueless. Could “the smartest person in the room” really be so dumb?

Or could it be that he is simply being deliberately opaque, hiding something from view, and being just a little bit too clever to pull it off?

There have been reports in recent weeks of the U.S. facilitating the efforts of certain Gulf countries to arm the opposition in Syria. Obama may in fact be conducting key aspects of U.S. foreign policy by covert means, while presenting a different narrative to the country and to foreign leaders.


Tzvi Ben Gedalyahu, “US Helps Gulf States Arm Syrian Rebels: Report; The US is coordinating with Saudi Arabia and Qatar in arming Syrian rebels. Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood also is involved,” Israel National News, May 16, 2012.

Karen DeYoung and Liz Sly, “Syrian rebels get influx of arms with gulf neighbors’ money, U.S. coordination, Washington Post, May 15, 2012.

These articles tell us what the administration wants us to know. They are based in large part on background information from government officials. Obama does tend to “spill the beans” on covert operations when he feels great pride in their achievements.

Could the U.S. be doing more to supply weapons to the Syrian opposition than coordinating the actions of the arms suppliers and the arms recipients? The CIA certainly has the experience. One need only recall the covert war against the government of Nicaragua in the 1980s, to cite one example.

The implications of such a development, if it is happening, would be highly significant. The problem would come not from supplying the rebels, but from doing so covertly while presenting a different narrative to the world.

Singing the praises of the Security Council’s 6-point peace plan while at the same time assisting in supplying arms to the rebels would involve, at a fundamental level, betraying all those who take the United States at its word. This could have a significant impact in the future when the United States seeks to bolster or forge new alliances to support important foreign policy objectives.

The Commander in Chief as Covert Operator

As David Ignatius has pointed out, the president is drawn to the allure of covert action. His most trusted cabinet members are linked to the CIA. The Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, is the previous CIA Director. The current CIA director, David Petraeus, is the former commander in Iraq and was the commander in Afghanistan before moving to his present position.

See David Ignatius, “The covert commander in chief,” Washington Post, September 10, 2011.

Ignatius’ observes,

Obama is the commander in chief as covert operator. The flag-waving “mission accomplished” speeches of his predecessor aren’t Obama’s thing; even his public reaction to the death of bin Laden was relatively subdued. Watching Obama, the reticent, elusive man whose dual identity is chronicled in “Dreams From My Father,” you can’t help wondering if he has an affinity for the secret world. He is opaque, sometimes maddeningly so, in the way of an intelligence agent.

He concludes as follows:

Perhaps Obama’s comfort level with his intelligence role helps explain why he has done other parts of the job less well. He likes making decisions in private, where he has the undiluted authority of the commander in chief. He likes information, as raw and pertinent as possible, and he gets impatient listening to windy political debates. He likes action, especially when he doesn’t leave fingerprints (emphasis added).

What this president dislikes — and does poorly — is political bargaining. He’s as bad a dealmaker as, let’s say, George Smiley would be. If the rote political parts of his job sometimes seem uninteresting to him, maybe that’s because they seem trivial compared to the secret activities that he directs each morning (emphasis added). If only economic policy could be executed as coolly and cleanly as a Predator shot.

There is a seduction to the secret world, which for generations has charmed presidents and their advisers. It’s easier pulling the levers in the dark, playing the keys of what a CIA official once called the “mighty Wurlitzer” of covert action. Politics is a much messier process — out in the open, making deals with bullies and blowhards. But that’s the part of the job that Obama must learn to master if he wants another term.

On this anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, America is lucky to have a president who is adept at intelligence. But it needs, as well, a leader who can take the country out of the shadows and into the light.


This is all very confusing. If such covert action is underway, Obama’s greatest blind spot (common to virtually all spooks)–a fundamental failure to grasp the importance and impact of international law–could come back to haunt him in Syria.

A lot of governments could react with outrage to the U.S. conducting a covert policy to overthrow al-Assad–without justifying it under international law, on the one hand, while publicly supporting the anodyne 6-point peace plan adopted by the Security Council, on the other.

What is America’s covert policy toward the al-Assad regime? That is the question. And, of course, the answer is secret.

Whatever the current U.S. dysfunctional approach to Syria may be, we need to keep in clear view what the situation demands for the killing and other abuses to stop, and for the United States to emerge with its reputation and credibility intact.

What is required in Syria is military intervention to halt al-Assad, accompanied by a strong justification under international law.

To facilitate such action, the UNSMIS mandate should not be extended past its present 90-day term.  The observers currently in Syria should immediately be ordered to stand down, before they or their leaders or a significant number of them are killed by IEDs, RPGs, or other instruments of war. They are at great risk, as the recent attacks on them have demonstrated.

We should bear in mind the tragic fate of Sérgio Vieira de Mello (a potential future Secretary General) and some 20 other members of the U.N. Mission in Bagdad who were killed by bombs on August 19, 2003. The Mission was not adequately protected. The bombing not only had tragic consequences, but also led to a precipitate withdrawal of the United Nations from Iraq.

The Trenchant Observer

For links to other articles by The Trenchant Observer, click on the title at the top of this page to go to the home page, and then consult the information in the bottom right hand corner of the home page. The Articles on Syria page can also be found here.

Obama clueless on Syria? G-8 endorses UN peace plan—Obama’s Debacle in Syria—Update #39 (May 21)

Monday, May 21st, 2012

Latest News Reports and Opinion

Clashes over the weekend following the killing of two Sunni clerics at a roadblock in Tripoli, under ambiguous circumstances, have raised again the real posibility of Lebanon being drawn into the civil conflict in Syria.


Neil MacFarquhar, “Syrian Unrest Prompts Gun Battles in Lebanon,” New York Times, May 21, 2012.

Alice Fordham, “Beirut tense after violent clashes linked to Syrian unrest,” The Washington Post, May 21, 2012.

Obama asserts G-8 in agreement on Syria

President Obama appeared in his public comments at the G-8 summit at Camp David this weekend to be seriously out of touch with reality on the ground in Syria. Reuters reports,

Camp David–President Barack Obama told G8 leaders meeting at Camp David that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must leave power, and pointed to Yemen as a model of how political transition could work there, the White House said on Saturday.

The Group of Eight leaders, in a statement summing up their discussions, urged all parties in Syria to adhere to their commitments under a joint U.N.-Arab League peace plan “including immediately ceasing all violence so as to enable a Syrian-led, inclusive political transition leading to a democratic, plural political system.”

The G8 statement said the leaders welcomed the deployment of the U.N. mission “and urge all parties, in particular the Syrian government, to fully cooperate with the mission. We strongly condemn recent terrorist attacks in Syria.”

Obama brought up Yemen as an example of a leader departing power peacefully and ushering in a democratic process, Rhodes said. “Our point was that we need to see political transition under way that brings real change to Syria,” he said.

Former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh ruled the poor Gulf nation for 33 years and was unseated after an uprising last year that split the country’s armed forces into warring factions.

Saleh was granted immunity from prosecution over the killing of protesters as part of power transfer deal that eased him out of office….

–Jeff Mason, “U.S. tells G8 Syria’s Assad must go, cites Yemen as model, Rueters, May 21, 2012.

These statements sound like they came from a goup that has been asleep for the last six months, and just woke up.

As for the Yemeni model, one should bear in mind that it is now viewed by many as the number one state harboring al Qaeda. Just today, over 90 people were killed as the result of a massive bomb explosion. It should also be borne in mind that Saleh killed hundreds of demonstrators, not the thousands al-Assad has murdered. The number of opposition members who would support a Yemeni-style transition, which would leave countless war criminals in place with impunity, could probably be counted on the fingers of a single hand.

Russians Satisfied

The Russians were satisfied with the results of the G-8 summit.

Global leaders demonstrated consensus on all issues discussed at the G8 summit in Camp David. A statement to this effect was made by Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as he spoke to a Voice of Russia correspondent during the news conference after the summit.

“This summit became my fifth,” the Prime Minister said. “Compared to the previous ones, it was informative and problem-free. We held substantial discussions in which all participants readily took part, and there was little, if any, controversy between delegations, or separate leaders.”

The participants in the summit reached consensus on Syria, Iran, and North Korea. Members of the G8 were unanimous that the Syrian government and all parties involved in the conflict should immediately secure the implementation of all requirements of a peace plan proposed by UN and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan. The Russian delegation made it clear that the Declaration on Syria was fully in conformity with the position of Moscow (emphasis added).

–Garibov Konstantin, “G-8: unanimity in spite of problems – Medvedev,” The Voice of Russia (radio), May 21, 2012 (14:47 Moscow Time).

The Russians’ triumph on Syria at Camp David came on the heals of a veiled threat by Dimitri Medvedev, now Prime Minister, that armed intervention in Syria could lead to nuclear war.

TEHRAN – Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev warned on Thursday that military action against sovereign states could lead to a regional nuclear war, starkly voicing Moscow’s opposition to Western intervention ahead of a G8 summit at which Syria and Iran will be discussed, Reuters reported.

The 38th G8 summit is to be held in Camp David, Maryland, from May 18 to 19.

“Hasty military operations in foreign states usually bring radicals to power,” Medvedev, president for four years until Vladimir Putin’s inauguration on May 7, told a conference in St. Petersburg in remarks posted on the government’s website.

“At some point such actions which undermine state sovereignty may lead to a full-scale regional war, even, although I do not want to frighten anyone, with the use of nuclear weapons,” Medvedev said.

“Everyone should bear this in mind,” he added.

–“Medvedev warns against a nuclear war in Mideast,” Tehran Times, May 18, 2012 (May 19 print edition).


President Obama–at least in public–is talking about a Yemen-style transition in Syria, which presumably would include a guarantee that al-Assad and his henchmen would not be prosecuted for their crimes.

He believes a political transition is necessary in Syria, with al-Assad leaving power. He has said this before.

He and the G-8 have endorsed the Security Council’s 6-point peace plan and the UNSMIS observer mission.

Obama–in his public declarations–appears clueless as to how the al-Assad regime might be induced to permit such a transition, or for that matter to cease their crimes against humanity, war crimes and other grave violations of human rights (such as those detailed by the Committee Against Torture Report).

Clueless, or so it would appear.

The Trenchant Observer

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Shooting Straight About Military Operations in Libya

Monday, March 21st, 2011

President Obama and his National Security team dragged their feet until the very last moment, before they gave support to U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973 (adopted 17 March 2011), authorizing the use of “all necessary means” to protect civilians in Libya.

See also U.N. Security Council Res. 1970 (26 Feb 2011) – text

Now they are being cute with words, and trying to “spin” the world’s perceptions of who is running the air campaign over Libya.

See General Jack Keane’s revealing reactions to questions on this subject, on the Charlie Rose Program, March 17, 2011

All of the talk about handing off primary responsibility to someone else is far removed from the hard and delicate work of implementing the Security Council’s resolution on the ground through military and other means.

In the long run, no one will care who was in charge of the air campaign if it is successful. By trying to be too clever, Obama has created an unnecessary problem for himself, which only serves to make him look weak and appear disingenuous.

The facts are that Nicholas Sarkozy of France and David Cameron of the United Kingdom moved the White House to reconsider its “hands-off policy” toward establishment of a no-fly zone over Libya. Fittingly, Sarkozy and the French conducted the airstrikes that saved Benghazi from further slaughter on March 20-21, and history will record that fact, to their great honor.

While populations in Arab and other countries may not pay too much attention to who is commanding air operations over Libya, one thing they will observe closely is whether the U.S. government is telling them the truth in a time of war.

Whatever benefit could be gained by letting the French lead the airstrikes on Libya–they seem to be the only ones who were prepared!–has already been won.

Now is the time for the United States–and all of its coalition partners–to present a united front. The leadership on the military side should be collective, whether the commander is American or from another (presumably NATO) country. It really doesn’t matter.

America has absolutely nothing to gain by appearing to distance itself from its own decision, and will appear weak and sow confusion if it tries to do so.

At this precise moment, the Middle East is in great ferment, at a time of great transition, from Tunis, Cairo and Tripoli to Manama and Sana’a. The geotectonic plates of history are moving. It is important to be paying close attention.

When President Obama gets back to Washington from his important but ill-timed trip to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador, he needs to stay in town, stay focused on the Middle East, change some key people on his national security staff, and start acting like the leader of the free world.

The Trenchant Observer

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