by// Obama deserves some credit. He’s being consistent.
He’s pandering to Iran on nukes and Persian Gulf piracy in international waters. He’s pandering to Iran’s Houthi terrorists on Yemen and to its Shiite militias in Iraq. Why not finish it off with some pandering to Hezbollah?
And that’s exactly what he’s doing.
The U.S. cut funding for a civil society program in Lebanon that seeks to develop alternative Shiite political voices to Hezbollah, the powerful Iranian-backed militia and political party.
The group that received the U.S. support and critics said that the Obama administration was curtailing its efforts to counter Hezbollah to avoid confronting Shiite Iran, with which it is negotiating to conclude a historic nuclear accord this month.
The Hayya Bina program in question was funded through the International Republican Institute, which promotes democracy overseas. It sought to support diverse Shiite voices through workshops, publications and public opinion polling. But in April, the institute notified Hayya Bina that the Obama administration was terminating its support for that program.
The State Department “requests that all activities intended [to] foster an independent moderate Shiite voice be ceased immediately and indefinitely,” said the April 10 letter to Mr. Slim, according to a copy seen by The Wall Street Journal. “Hayya Bina…must eliminate funding for any of the above referenced activities.”
Hezbollah’s leader, Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, has publicly branded some of his Shiite political opponents as “Shia of the American Embassy,” in recent speeches, as well as “traitors” and “idiots.”
So I guess we’re just going to stick to acting as Hezbollah’s air force while urging the Saudis to stop bombing the Houthis. And the usual excuse for all this covert appeasement of Iran is that if we don’t do it, Iran will walk away from the negotiations that will allow it to develop a bomb anyway.
AP-BEIRUT – Hezbollah gunmen repelled an attack Tuesday by Islamic State extremists in an area along the Lebanon-Syria border as a major battle between the two groups looms in the rugged mountainous region, Hezbollah’s TV station reported.
According to Al-Manar TV, ISIS targeted several Hezbollah positions outside the northeastern Lebanese border village of Ras Baalbek.
The ensuing battle left at least five ISIS fighters dead or wounded, including the group’s leader in the Qalamoun border region identified as Saudi national Walid Abdel Mohsen al-Omari, the channel said. It did not say whether there were casualties among Hezbollah fighters.
Al-Manar said Hezbollah also captured 14 ISIS bodies the militants were unable to retrieve.
Of the many tales about late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from his “days of secret activism,” one has it that a group of Baathists were ordered to execute Communist enemies. As everyone shot their rifles, Saddam did not. Instead, he dropped his gun, walked up to his victim, pulled out a knife and severed his head.
Lacking political skills, Saddam was made chief of the Agriculture Committee of the Baath Party. He turned that irrelevant party organ into a formidable killing machine, naming it the “Honein Agency.”
Another story about Saddam is that while heading to a meeting of the Revolutionary Command Council, a member—who was diabetic and had probably started suffering from hypoglycemia—sneaked a peek at his watch. After the meeting, an offended Saddam took the minister to an adjacent room and shot him point-blank.
The stories of handling executions personally was recycled and later told about Iraqi Vice President Ayad Allawi who, during his tenure as interim prime minister, allegedly executed a senior Sunni insurgent, “using his own revolver.”
Whether true or not, Iraqi leaders do not mind such stories because they give them an appearance of being strong and help instill fear in the hearts of their opponents. We know now that Saddam had given up his WMDs long before 2003. In Ronald Kessler’s book The Terrorist Watch, Lebanese-American FBI investigator George Piro quoted Saddam as saying that he gave the impression of maintaining his WMD arsenal as deterrence against Iran. In his just-released book The Great War of Our Time, CIA’s former Deputy Director Michael Morell reaffirmed Kessler’s account.
Iraq’s strongmen, whether from the Baath Party or the Islamic State (ISIS), maintain a brutal image that is often exaggerated.
In their book The State of Terror, Jessica Stern and J. M. Berger correctly identified ISIS as a low threat to the West. ISIS might look as dangerous as Saddam once did, but apart from military prowess on its own turf in Iraq’s Sunni areas, it is much less capable.
ISIS might be an offshoot of Osama Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda, but severing heads on video has never been Al-Qaeda’s thing. Public brutality—like when a mob mutilated the bodies of the Iraqi royal family and paraded them down the streets of Baghdad in 1958, or when another mob killed American security contractors and hung their burned bodies from a Fallujah bridge in 2004—looks like more of an Iraqi practice than international terrorism.
And as ISIS reflects Saddam and his Baath Party, Jabhat al-Nusra re-embodies Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and his Baath Party. What we see in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon are tribal configurations that once acted secular, in line with trends of the time, and are now Islamist in keeping with a changing culture.
Neither the Iraqi nor Syrian Baath Parties were serious about or capable of reviving the “great Arab nation.” And neither ISIS nor Nusra are genuinely interested in the creation of an Islamic state, just as Hezbollah scrapped plans of creating an Iran-style Islamic republic.
Like radical Baathists before them, fundamentalist Islamists are busy terrorizing the local population while causing regional and international trouble to get attention and win legitimacy. The politics and policies of both ISIS and Nusra predate them, and will probably outlast them. Neither ISIS nor Nusra endorse Al-Qaeda’s conviction that after having defeated one empire, the Soviet Union, now is the time to beat the second one, America.
And because for ISIS and Nusra all politics are local, hatred between the two is a continuation of the Saddam-Assad rivalry, which was probably a continuation of animosity between the Damascus-based Umayyads and their successors, the Baghdad-based Abbasids in Medieval times.
As has been the case in the past, the Iraqis are more resourceful and violent, the Syrians more nuanced and shrewd.
In fact, Al-Jazeera’s interview with Nusra leader Abu Mohammad al-Jolani showed the many aspects that set him apart from the average Al-Qaeda leader.
First, unlike headline-hungry Bin Laden, Al-Zawahiri and Al-Zarqawi, by hiding his face Jolani wanted to keep the door open for his coming back in from the terrorism cold. Second, while most Al-Qaeda leaders organize in exile, Jolani—judging by his native northern Syrian dialect—is no foreigner (which makes him an insurgent as per Washington’s definition). Third, despite his announced allegiance to Al-Qaeda’s nominal leader Zawahiri, Jolani broke one of the main tenets of the terrorist organization by declaring that his focus was toppling Assad and promising not to attack Western targets. In the documents that US Navy seals collected after killing Bin Laden in Pakistan, the terrorist leader expressed frustration that Zarqawi was going after Iraqi Shiites instead of targeting Americans.
Like their predecessor Baath parties, ISIS and Nusra are brutal. They are Islamist in line with the dominant regional trend. And unlike Al-Qaeda, they are local, territorial, and are seeking to rule their own states.
America might not like the Islamic states that ISIS and Nusra seek to create, but America is no longer in the business of telling sovereign nations how to run their governments, whether in Islamic Iran or in Communist Cuba.
Meanwhile, it is unfortunate that Washington’s understanding of terrorist groups has not evolved, even though the Obama administration absurdly changed the word ‘terror’ to ‘radical extremism.’
ISIS, Nusra Front and Hezbollah are all on the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. All three are Islamist. Their sponsor countries are not liberal democracies. They are locked in a bitter and bloody war for control of territory. Their fight is the continuation of millennia-old vendettas.
But none of the three currently pose significant threat to the West, which means it is not in Washington’s interests to side with any of them in particular.
For a political solution like the one Washington wants, ISIS, Nusra, Hezbollah and their respective regional patrons have to sit down together and talk while America leads the world in restoring the Sunni-Shiite balance that was shattered in 2003. The only other alternative to such a scheme is a drawn-out war of attrition in which many more hundreds of thousands will be injured and killed.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington Bureau Chief of Alrai newspaper. He tweets @hahussain
Supporters explain how teens become Hezbollah fighters and why they might want to
Hezbollah mourned last week the death of a teenager killed “on jihadist duty” in Syria. The party’s Al-Manar television reported last Tuesday that “Hezbollah bid farewell to the mujahid martyr Mashhur Fahd Shamseddine.” Neither Hezbollah nor media outlets associated with the party made any reference to the boy’s age. Hezbollah only announced that he had died in a tragic accident while performing his jihadist duty. However, Arabic-language newspapers reported Shamseddine was only 15. Al-Araby al-Jadeed reported that the teenager was killed a week ago in an Israeli raid on Hezbollah positions in the Qalamoun area.
Hezbollah did not explain what kind of jihadist duty the teenager was performing so close to a battlefield, but a close look at how the party recruits its young members is cause for serious concern, says political analyst Ali al-Amine. “Hezbollah does not think that low—they won’t bring a 15-year-old child soldier to the battlefield. They haven’t reached the stage of recruiting child soldiers,” he said. “But sources of Hezbollah said that [the boy] died while he was receiving a military training. This raises a question: why are you giving military training to children?”
Hezbollah’s military greenhouse
Getting into Hezbollah’s military ranks was not easy before the group got involved in the Syrian war. They recruit and start training at very young ages—typically at around 10-13 years old, when they join the Imam al-Mahdi Scouts, says 35-year-old Hussein, a former scout. Later, when the scouts are 16 or 17, they can join the party’s military ranks or opt to continue their education.
The Imam al-Mahdi Scouts were founded in 1985 and are registered with the Lebanese Ministry of Education. The organization includes children from four to 17 years of age, split into Cubs, Scouts and Rangers. Besides outdoor activities and charity work, the Imam al-Mahdi Scouts also teach the young to be good Muslims, to volunteer at local mosques, and to defend Lebanon against Israel.
“This is no secret. I was a scout myself, but I did not join the military ranks,” Hussein told NOW. “It was the sheikh at the mosque who chose the ones who were fit for the military [the scouts get intense religious training]. Not all are selected. The family can refuse, of course. But usually they don’t. On the contrary; some bribe the sheikh to pick their sons, because the family gets perks like jobs or free education for the rest of the children.”
Hussein also said that Lebanese wasta [nepotism] is prevalent in Hezbollah. “Usually, the boys who have family members in Hezbollah have more chances to get picked for the military,” he says. Hussein’s uncle was a Hezbollah member and could have made it easy for him to be recruited, but his own father begged the uncle not to take the boy because his father was blind and Hussein was the only one who could support his family.
It all depends how good the boys are in school. “If you have good grades and a good family, you’re most likely to finish school and go to university. But all boys go to military training until they’re 14 and get the brevet,” Hussein said. The boys are trained in an annual summer camp located in a remote area. After they take their brevet, boys with good grades continue school while the military recruits start real combat training. These rules do not apply to girls. Hezbollah encourages women to join the party, but they are also encouraged to study and to graduate university so that they can later teach, Hussein explained.
“This is exactly what used to happen in the ‘80s and 90s,” Houssein said. “But the mentality has changed in the last 10 years or so. Most people now concentrate on studying and opt for the teaching career. I guess that’s why maybe they have this problem with recruiting fighters now.”
Social class matters nowadays
Mahdi Magazine, the Imam al-Mahdi Scouts magazine for boys between 13 and 17, teaches scouts how to avoid becoming an extremist, among other things. It also features a story about a scout’s first military mission. The boy is sent to scout an area and is not happy because it’s not a real fighting mission and, therefore, not manly enough. “My friend was joking with me. ‘When are you going to get married?’ he asked. ‘When I become a man.’ ‘And when would that be?’ ‘When I go on my first mission on the front.’ The boy is finally sent to the front, gets shot, and is taken to the hospital where he meets a nurse and falls in love with her.
Members of the Imam al-Mahdi Scouts, the youth movement of Hezbollah, some of them future soldiers. (AFP/Mahmoud Zayyat)
It’s with stories like this that teenagers in the best schools in Dahieh and South Lebanon are enticed to join Hezbollah’s military ranks. A Hezbollah supporter who wished to remain anonymous told NOW his children go to one of the best schools in the southern suburbs of Beirut and frequently go on trips to Hezbollah museums and camps. They watch presentations about weaponry and are told stories of heroes of the Resistance.
He says, though, that despite the indoctrination, it’s up to the family to decide a child’s future. “I encourage my children to be very good in school so that they avoid a military career,” he said. He also says he’s committed to his support for Hezbollah because he feels protected. “I was never asked to join the party directly. But I know that I get a lot in return for being a supporter. If I lost my job, I would get another one the next day.”
Recruiting from the street
Hezbollah is in a very tight spot in terms of human resources on the battlefield in Syria. Its troops are stretched out and many experienced commanders have been killed in the fighting, by Jabhat al-Nusra car bombs and even by Israeli air strikes. There is a lot of recruiting going on in the southern suburbs of Beirut, Hussein said. “If you want to fight, you have to go to one of the offices and they can hire you. It’s not required, but they prefer that you’re a supporter; that you have the preliminary training.”
Al-Amine told NOW that Hezbollah indeed has a problem with the number of troops involved in the Syrian conflict and is recruiting fighters without proper experience. “A very large number of soldiers who went to Syria were not, in fact, proper soldiers of the Resistance, so they were poorly trained. They are supporters willing to fight for the party, rather than members of Hezbollah’s military ranks,” he explained. “The increasing fatalities of Hezbollah in Syria put pressure on the party, but the real pressure is the general feeling among the people that Hezbollah’s victory in Syria is unlikely. This feeling creates a kind of confusion, not to say a reluctance, to fight in Syria.”
Hezbollah has also endeavored to recruit soldiers from the Druze community in Syria, Al-Amin says, which indicates that Hezbollah can no longer rely on its supporters and sympathizers, adding that this is why the party is also accepting Afghans and Iraqi Shiites in its ranks in Syria and Iraq.
Ana Maria Luca tweets @aml1609
Amin Nasr and Myra Abdallah contributed translation
Hezbollah is under pressure as the regime faces military setbacks and Israel has targeted its missiles.
The Syrian regime has faced a series of dramatic military setbacks, starting from the loss of Idlib up to its most recent reverses in the rest of the province as well as in the South, where earlier this week the the Free Syrian Army announced that it had launched the “Battle of the Cutting of Joints” to cut the Damsacus-Quneitra highway. Bashar al-Assad’s grip on the country is once again in question, just as his regime’s grip over its sizeable and powerful arsenal of strategic weapons.
“The Syrian regime is currently suffering a lot especially after all the losses he encountered on the ground,” said retired LAF general Wehbe Qatisha. “The Syrian regime attacked in February and March  after the Houthis started wining the battles in Yemen; they hoped they would win too.But, when it turned out that the Houthis couldn’t really take over Yemen, the [Syrian] regime started to slow down the military activities, especially that they lost in Idlib and Jisr al-Shughur, and the cities they hold in Hama [province ]are now under attack.”
Despite the relatively calm situation in Qalamoun recently, Israeli Air Force (IAF) jets bombed Hezbollah and regime positions in the rugged mountain region along the Lebanese-Syrian border. A source close to Hezbollah said to Al-Hadath that Israel had “targeted an artillery and rocket [launch site] containing mid-range rockets used periodically to target the movements of armed groups in the [mountains].”
“The Israeli strikes targeted the military bases of the Syrian regime’s army and Hezbollah in Qalamoun,” said Paris-based Syrian activist Fahed al-Masri, coordinator of the Al-Inqaz Al-Watani opposition group. “In fact, the strikes targeted 65th and 155th Brigades specialized in strategic weapon in addition to few Hezbollah bases in Qalamoun, especially that the party is trying to move the regime’s weapon to Lebanese Beqaa.”
According to analyst Philip Smyth, Israel targeted shipments in Syria that were supposed to go to Hezbollah, a weapons channel that has been open for years. “Right now, in terms of the regime’s power, it’s not very good for them,” said Smyth.
“There are tons of reports coming out now that the fights between the NDF and the Syrian army are minor compared to the larger problems. The Iranians have been shipping in a lot newer foreign fighters and Hezbollah has been trying to take the lead. The bigger problem on the field is that Hezbollah, the Syrian army, NDF and the other Shia militias that are controlled by IRGC are not doing very well. The regime is being pushed back on multiple fronts and it is not a comfortable situation.”
It is obvious that Israel is trying to preserve the power dynamics in the region, especially if Hezbollah as trying to reinforce is military bases in Southern Lebanon. “Today, Assad’s Syria extends from Naqoura to Latakia. There was more than one Israeli strike: one of the strikes was against Hezbollah brigades and their long-range missiles; and the other was against the groups who were trying to target the borders of Golan. It is obvious that Israel does not want to transform its borders to a ‘mailbox,’ whether it was the Lebanese or the Golan borders. In addition to this, through the last strike, Israel wanted to make sure that the fights remain inside the Syrian borders and do not extend to Lebanon,” Lebanese political activist, Lokman Slim, told NOW.
According to an Al-Hayat report, the Israeli strikes were meant to warn that Israel is still ready to defend itself against Hezbollah. The Israel Defense Forces claim that Iran is still trying to empower Hezbollah and provide the party with developed weaponry. The report also said that Israel “will not allow the strengthening of military capacities or the transfer of dangerous strategic weapon” and that it will not allow the arming of Hezbollah.”
Smyth told NOW that Hezbollah “has invested interests in taking over the [regime’s] stocks and also incorporating them into their own ranks. Beyond that, after learning what happened in Iraq, ISIS got former advanced weapons after capturing them from the Iraqi army. I think Hezbollah will also try to prevent them from getting anything else especially that the Assad’s regime has the most advanced weapons systems.”
Regardless of Hezbollah and Syrian regime’s priorities, Iran might have its own plans in the region. “We should not forget the [role of] the Iranian ‘master’ in all this,” Slim said. “First of all, we should find out what is left from the regime’s strategic weapons caches that might be a threat to the regional security. Regardless, the Syrian regime is only a deposit for Iran’s weapons. Iran is directly interfering in the region and it is obvious that it considers Lebanon as a free zone, including the Lebanese borders and airport without giving any importance to the Lebanese sovereignty. The repositioning of any weapons should be seen from the point of view of Teheran regardless what other players may have planned.”
Although, analysts who NOW spoke to confirm that, even though the rebels are trying to stop Hezbollah from taking over the Syrian regime’s weapon, they might not have the capacity or the needed equipment to do so. “The FSA also wants to seize Syrian regime’s strategic weapon; but unlike Hezbollah, they are unable to do so in the current time. The FSA is too weak and does not have the capacity to do it. Despite, if the FSA felt they were able to, they wouldn’t miss a chance,” said Qatisha.
Although Hezbollah is aiming to save what is left from the regime’s strategic weapon and move it to Lebanon to reinforce its capacity on Lebanon’s southern border, the losses both Hezbollah and the Syrian regime suffered from lately will have a big effect on the party.
“Hezbollah is now under a lot of pressure. The Syrian regime has lost Idlib and is worried about the Alawi coast. This is a monumental pressure to put on Hezbollah with so many fighters doing so many rotations and Hezbollah have a lot of pressure on them to hold the line and the ground they have. They also want to make sure that there won’t be more attacks executed against them,” said Smyth.
Qatisha predicted that the Syrian regime’s crumbling military situation will have repercussions on its ally Hezbollah.
“The weakness of the Syrian regime will definitely weaken Hezbollah. Hezbollah will pay the price especially since the party invested all its capacity to defend the [Syrian] regime. Eventually, Hezbollah will lose and retreat.”