Assad: Int'l inquiry into Hariri murder destabilizes Lebanon
Assad said that in the past the court had blamed Syria, a claim later proven to have been baseless, but nearly destroyed Lebanon and the entire region.
Syrian President Bashar Assad said during meetings over the weekend with Saudi King Abdullah and Lebanese President Michel Suleiman that the role of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon's investigation into the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri must be ended because the court has become a burden on Lebanon that is threatening the country's stability.
Saudi King Abdullah, left, and Syrian President Assad stepping off a plane Friday in Beirut
|Photo by: AP|
According to the Lebanese daily Al Akhbar, Assad warned that if a finger is pointed at Hezbollah for being behind the assassination, this may result in the destruction of Lebanon. Assad said that in the past the court had blamed Syria, a claim later proven to have been baseless, but nearly destroyed Lebanon and the entire region, and now the same scenario is being repeated against Hezbollah.
The report says that Assad clearly relayed his views to the Saudi King, who is known to have a great deal of influence on the Hariri family, and the former prime minister's son, Sa'ad, who is now prime minister himself. Assad made it clear that not only will Hezbollah oppose the court's decisions, but will also fight against them.
The newspaper quotes Assad as saying that the court's role was to find those responsible for the murder, however its current mandate has become to strike at the resistance forces - a euphemism for Hezbollah - and against countries that are not part of the pro-American camp. Assad said Syria will not allow the undermining of Lebanese resistance (Hezbollah ) since this is a red line that cannot be crossed.
There were no reports of disagreement having been expressed by the Saudi king, however he did express doubt as to the possibility of stopping the activities of the court since the issue is an international one.
The Lebanese are waiting for Tuesday, when Hezbollah's Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah will address the issue of the international court and its accusations.
Abdullah, Assad in Beirut in Unprecedented, Historic Visit Hussein Assi
Friday was "exceptional" in Lebanon…
On Friday, the Lebanese capital was witnessing a historic and unprecedented "twofold visit" as Syrian President Bachar Assad and Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz landed "together" in Beirut, where they were expected to hold summits and meet officials.
The importance of the visit can also be reflected through the "relaxing atmosphere" that prevailed in the country following its mere announcement. One week ago, Lebanon seemed to be heading towards a definite crisis from the gate of an "already written" verdict accusing Hezbollah of being involved in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.
Lebanese were divided over the Special Tribunal for Lebanon's course of actions, not its "principle." One bloc was warning of a serious plot to create sedition in the country through the newest Israeli project, the STL, while the other bloc was rejecting any discussion or compromise, claiming that "international justice" comes above everything else.
After all tools and weapons were used to intensify and aggravate the crisis, everything suddenly slowed down. The political rhetoric became more silent than ever and the politicians, from rival blocs, turned to be "beloved allies" just as if "nothing happened."
The reason was too simple: Assad and Abdullah declared their "intention" to visit the country…
TRIPARTITE SUMMIT PRECEDES EXPANDED MEETING
Right after the two leaders' arrival to the Baabda Presidential Palace, a short summit took place between them and President Michel Sleiman. The three rulers were then joined by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
The expanded talks that took place soon after were attended by Foreign Minister Ali al-Shami, his Syrian and Saudi counterparts Walid al-Moallem and Saud al-Faisal respectively, Syrian presidential advisor Buthaina Shaaban, and head of the Saudi intelligence service Prince Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz.
The statement issued by the Lebanese presidency following the mini-statement said that visiting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Saudi King Abdullah on Friday urged Lebanese parties to avoid resorting to violence in the face of mounting political tensions in the country. "The leaders stressed the importance of stability... the commitment of the Lebanese not to resort to violence and the need to place the country's interests above all sectarian interests," the statement said, stressing the need to "resort to legal institutions and Lebanon's unity government to resolve any differences."
The statement urged Lebanese parties to "pursue the path of appeasement and dialogue and to boost national unity in the face of outside threats," referring to Israel. The Saudi and Syrian leaders said they stood in solidarity with Lebanon "in the face of Israel's daily violations of its sovereignty and its attempts to destabilize the country."
Asked about the outcome of the brief talks as he left the presidential palace, the Syrian leader gave a thumbs up and said: "The discussions were excellent."
The talks were followed by a luncheon banquet in honor of King Abdullah and President Assad, attended by a number of ministers, MPs, major military and security officials, and a number of Arab and foreign ministers.
Saudi and Syrian flags were on display throughout the Lebanese capital on Friday along huge portraits of the king carrying a welcome message. Security was also tight, with additional army and police deployed.
GEMAYEL, GEAGEA MOST REMARKABLE ABSENTS
Former presidents, the heads of political parties who are not MPs, and religious leaders have not been invited to the luncheon, making the Phalange Party the most notable absentee.
Lebanese Forces chief Samir Geagea was also uninvited.
One week ago, Geagea said that he would attend a ceremony in honor of President Bachar Assad in case "he was invited." However, he wasn't in what appeared to be a "message" for him, reflected in Syrian daily Al-Watan which described him as 'undesirable.'
'OPPORTUNITY TO SHOW ARAB UNITY'
"The whole visit is about containing the situation for the immediate future," said Sahar Atrache, a Beirut-based analyst with the International Crisis Group think-tank. "They are here to exert influence on their internal allies... to prevent a real escalation."
"The Arab leaders' visit to Lebanon is an opportunity to show Arab unity in the face of this plot which aims to destabilize Lebanon and sow sedition," Hezbollah deputy Hassan Fadlallah told AFP. "This would not be in the interest of the Lebanese or their Arab brothers."
Arab League chief Amr Moussa, meanwhile, described the visits of Arab leaders to Beirut as positive and aimed at stressing Arab support for Lebanon. "The visits of Arab leaders to Lebanon are positive and aimed at stressing Arab support for Lebanon," Moussa told pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat in remarks published Friday. "Lebanon is not alone and will not be left alone in the face of any negative developments or any attacks," he said "During their visits to Beirut, the Arab leaders speak in the name of all Arabs in their willingness to support Lebanon," Moussa added.
Abdullah visited Beirut for the first time as Saudi king. He had attended the Arab summit in Beirut in 2002 when he was still crown prince. He became the first Saudi monarch to visit the country since 1957.
As for Assad, he visited the Lebanese capital after an eight-year absence to consolidate the resumption of normal ties between the two countries following five years of tension that erupted after Hariri's assassination in February 2005.
Also coming to Beirut on Friday is the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. The emir, who is staying until Sunday, is to meet separately with Lebanese leaders and is due to visit the south of the country.
Lebanon press unmoved by Syrian-Saudi visit
19 hours ago
BEIRUT — Lebanon's press on Saturday appeared unimpressed by the outcome of a historic Syria-Saudi-Lebanon summit, saying it failed to address key issues linked to rising tensions in the country.
"The core problem in Lebanon of how an Iranian-Syrian-allied armed Hezbollah can coexist with the Lebanese state remains unresolved and will rear its head again soon," wrote journalist Rami Khouri in The Daily Star, Lebanon's only English-language newspaper.
"The Syrian-Saudi visit to keep things quiet in Lebanon is an upgraded version of the... diplomatic move in May 2008 to contain and end the brief street fighting that ... threatened to rip the country apart along Sunni-Shiite lines," Khouri wrote.
He was referring to a week of deadly violence that erupted that month when the government announced -- and then repealed -- a crackdown on Shiite militant Hezbollah.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Saudi King Abdullah arrived in Lebanon Friday for an hours-long visit, their first since 2002.
The visit was widely seen as a desperate bid to ease tensions over reports of an impending indictment by a UN tribunal against members of Hezbollah for the 2005 assassination of ex-premier Rafiq Hariri, father of current Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
"Assad to Abdullah in Damascus: end the tribunal as it has ruined Lebanon," read analyst Nicolas Nassif's headline in the Arabic daily Al-Akhbar, which is close to Hezbollah.
"It may be too soon to predict the immediate outcome of the tripartite summit in Beirut yesterday... but (one outcome) of the summit was Syria's and Saudi's confirmation that they represent the major overseers of Lebanon's stability," Nassif wrote.
Saudi Arabia, which was close to the slain premier, holds sway with Lebanon's ruling alliance led by his son Saad, while Syria and Iran support a rival camp led by Hezbollah.
"Delaying the indictment, as step toward aborting it altogether, is being offered as a condition and barter for the protection of Saad Hariri and his allies," wrote Rosana Bou Monsef in the daily An-Nahar, which is close to the Hariri camp.
"The international community will not accept this barter but will seek a different deal, and not necessarily with Hezbollah itself," Bou Monsef wrote.
Assad's visit to Lebanon is particularly controversial as his country was widely accused of the bombing that killed Hariri and 22 others on February 14, 2005 in Beirut.
Damascus has consistently denied the accusations but was forced to pull its troops from Lebanon in the wake of the murder after a 29-year presence.
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah this month revealed the UN tribunal probing Hariri's killing was poised to indict members of his party.
But he made it clear he would not accept such a scenario and his deputy, Naim Qassem, on Friday said the party had the right to defend itself through all available means.
Lebanon better able to catch alleged Israeli spies
A strengthening Lebanese government is helping the militant group Hezbollah bust alleged spy cells, sometimes using tools and tradecraft acquired from Western nations.
Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times
July 31, 2010|
With that, Achraf Rifi, head of the U.S.-backed Internal Security Forces, handed over evidence showing that two trusted, mid-ranking Hezbollah commanders were working as informants for Israeli military intelligence, said a high-ranking Lebanese security official with knowledge of the April 2009 meeting.
Wafiq Safa, the security chief for the powerful Shiite Muslim militia and political organization, was silent.
"They were shocked," said the security official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak on the subject.
Things moved quickly after that. The Hezbollah commander called Rifi the next day to assure him that the militant group would "take care of" the alleged infiltrators, who were never heard from again, the security official said.
A monthlong war between Hezbollah and Israel ended four years ago, and Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon ended a decade ago. But a clandestine intelligence war between the Jewish state and the Iranian-backed militant group continues unabated, officials and security experts say.
Now, a strengthening Lebanese government is helping Hezbollah bust alleged spy cells, sometimes using tools and tradecraft acquired from Western nations eager to build up Lebanon's security forces as a counterweight to the Shiite group, which since a 2008 power-sharing agreement has been a member of the governing coalition.
Although security officials here say they're using newfound tools to ferret out spies watching Hezbollah, just like they would against anyone attempting to infiltrate the country, Western observers express concern.
"There are deep Israeli worries that anything the West gives the Lebanese armed forces and the Internal Security Forces could be used against them," said Mara Karlin, a former Lebanon specialist at the U.S. Defense Department, now a researcher at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
The United States and its Western allies play a delicate balancing game in Lebanon. Since 2006, Washington has given nearly $500 million in military aid to Lebanese security forces and has allocated $100 million for 2011, making Lebanon the second-largest recipient of American military aid per capita after Israel.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense Alexander Vershbow met officials in Lebanon on Monday, emphasizing that continuing U.S. aid and training would allow the army to "prevent militias and other nongovernment organizations" from undermining the government.
The use of sophisticated equipment in the foiling of alleged Israeli spies may be the first concrete illustration of the U.S. dilemma. According to Lebanese officials, Israeli analysts and a Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity, Lebanon has redirected for use against Israel signal-detection equipment donated by France and intended to fight Islamic militants.
"The technology used with Fatah Islam was used to detect Israeli spies and collaborators in Lebanon," said retired Col. Kamal Awar, a U.S.-trained former member of the Lebanese Special Forces who now publishes Defense 21, an Arabic-language military journal. "They discovered they were talking with the Israeli guy on the other side of the border."
The U.S. military has also contributed to the Lebanese security forces' communications abilities. Israeli analyst Ronen Bergman, author of "The Secret War with Iran," who is writing a book about the history of his country's intelligence efforts, said the U.S. gave Lebanon's army sophisticated electronic equipment that allowed it to identify and trace even encrypted communications.
But there is no evidence that the training and equipment have been used to foil the intelligence operations of Israel, a major American ally.
Israel and Lebanon have long claimed counterintelligence coups and thwarted alleged traitors.
In 2008, Israel charged Sgt. Maj. Lovai Balut of Military Intelligence Unit 504 of passing on information to Hezbollah, according to the Jerusalem Post. In June, the Israeli army arrested a soldier and several civilians accused of spying for Hezbollah and smuggling drugs into the Jewish state.
But over the last two years, Lebanon's security forces may have conducted one of the most extraordinary counterintelligence sweeps in the annals of espionage. Dozens of alleged spies have been arrested in Lebanon on suspicion of sending information to Israel on the whereabouts and movements of Hezbollah and other enemies of the Jewish state.
The broad range of suspects suggests a widespread effort by Israeli security forces to infiltrate Hezbollah, which Israel views as a severe threat to its national security.
They include a city official of a small town in Hezbollah's Bekaa Valley stronghold. Ziad Homsy, allegedly recruited at a conference in the Far East, is serving a temporary sentence of hard labor pending a final verdict.
"Homsy had fought against the Israeli occupation," said a Lebanese army officer, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the topic. "It was not easy to recruit him. But he needed the money. He would never drive a Kia. It was either a Mercedes or an SUV or stay at home."
There is the case of Lebanese army reserve Brig. Gen. Adib Alam, arrested in 2009 on charges of spying for Israel, who was reportedly convinced that it would help counter Syria, which he despised for its dominant role in recent Lebanese history.
One convicted spy, Marwan Faqih, was a car dealer who allegedly sold Hezbollah bigwigs SUVs equipped with tracking devices that allowed Israel to follow their movements. Hezbollah has denied that its members bought cars from him.
This summer, Lebanese security forces arrested two people working for the country's state-owned Alfa cellphone company who allegedly allowed Israel to breach the communications network, a matter that has roiled the Lebanese Cabinet and prompted the government to announce that it would seek redress against Israel at the U.N. Security Council.
Three Lebanese nationals, one of whom was found guilty of providing Israel with sensitive information during its 2006 war with Hezbollah, have been sentenced to death for spying activities.
The motives vary, security officials said. Some of those apprehended have political gripes against Hezbollah.
"There are some political reasons, there are some psychological reasons," the high-ranking security official said. "But mostly it's money and sex."
According to Lebanese security officials and intelligence experts, the alleged spies used sophisticated electronic devices to communicate with their handlers via coded messages. In May 2009, the intelligence branch of the ISF paraded some of the devices before an eager press corps. They included laptop computers, satellite phones, a tracking device hidden in the lid of a water cooler and a wooden chest installed with an apparatus for transmitting and receiving messages.
"If only part of this story is true, it means [Hezbollah] has been sharing its every step and move with a silent partner," said Gad Shimron, a former Mossad officer and author of the book "Mossad Exodus."
Over the last several years, Lebanon has doubled the number of officers working in counterintelligence. Security officials believed that their efforts are bearing fruit by dismantling a robust Israeli spy infrastructure they say has been in place in the country for decades.
"They were strong and we were weaker," the Lebanese security official said. "The Israelis thought they had the technological edge that put them ahead of the Arabs by 30 years. But we showed them we're catching up."
But some analysts speculate that Lebanese security forces are giving themselves too much credit, and that Hezbollah, Iran and Syria may have contributed to the country's apparent counterintelligence successes.
"Anecdotal data suggests Hezbollah is providing intelligence to ISF and LAF," the Lebanese military, said Aram Nerguizian, a resident scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
Some of the successes involved blind luck. The alleged activities of Faqih, the SUV dealer, unraveled when a Hezbollah member took his car to a mechanic over a minor electrical problem.
"The electrician started testing here and there," the Lebanese army officer said. "He found a wire leading to a strange device. He told the owner."
Hezbollah detained Faqih soon afterward.
Special correspondents Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem and Alexandra Sandels in Beirut contributed to this report.