In Lebanon, bravado about Syrian civil war is replaced by foreboding

Two Sunni gunmen in the northern Lebanese town of Tripoli where fighting has killed 25 people in eig

Two Sunni gunmen in the northern Lebanese town of Tripoli, where sectarian conflict has taken hold. Photograph: Omar Ibrahim/REUTERS

Beirutis like to say that their city thrives on uncertainty. “We’ve been through worse,” is a common refrain. “We’re used to war every few years,” is another.

In the last few months, though, bravado has been replaced by uncertainty and fear. Residents are often heard discussing the steadily deteriorating region in more foreboding tones.

“Is war really coming?” they regularly ask each other. Amid the rumble and whirl of drills and construction cranes, many in Beirut prefer not to draw conclusions. But away from the capital, the countryside resounds to the unmistakable drumbeat of war.

The largely Sunni north has taken on an increasingly heavy burden as Syria has unravelled. Lebanese men have gone to fight on Syrian battlefields, from where hundreds of thousands of civilians have fled to Lebanon.

Two years of sporadic clashes between Sunnis in Lebanon’s second city, Tripoli, and a minority Alawite Shia community barricaded on a residential hilltop have recently taken the shape of a more enduring battle.

Here, the Syrian civil war is unmistakably cast as a sectarian bid, led by Iran, to keep Sunnis away from power in the Levant. Fighting has intensified in each of the last three weeks, as Hezbollah – the Shia militia-cum-political powerhouse – has emerged from the shadows to take a very public stake in Syria’s war.

The speech two weeks ago by Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, announcing his militia’s role in seizing from rebels the border town of Qusair has heightened tensions. There is an undeniable sense that a reckoning now awaits the Shias of Lebanon, and especially their patrons in Tehran and Damascus. Nasrallah’s belligerent speech has done far more than the two-year creep of chaos across the Lebanon ranges to crystallise what is now at stake.

Hezbollah’s victory in Qusair, on behalf of Assad’s regime, is widely viewed as a first step in the escalation of the group’s role on other Syrian battlefronts. Many Sunni communities in the north are increasingly viewing the conflict in straight-up sectarian terms, believing they are being inexorably drawn into a fight that extends well beyond Lebanon’s borders.

The Shia of the south, meanwhile, cast Hezbollah’s role in Syria as a pre-emptive bid to protect them from an ancient inter-Muslim foe, salafists or takfiris – fundamentalist streams of Sunni Islam who the Shia claim are trying to attack them. This mutual demonisation is clearly hardening sectarian positions in the south and north. It is also being felt in parts of the capital, where both sects live alongside each other. Here, tensions run just as high as in the respective heartlands.

In Lebanon’s moribund parliament, though, there seems to be some kind of a detente at play. “Hezbollah sends us messages constantly that they don’t want things to get out of hand here,” said one member of the opposition March 14 political bloc. “We believe them about that. But what has been unleashed could prove unstoppable.”

Meanwhile, Beirut’s construction boom – legacies of contracts signed in better years – continues unabated. Hotels, however, stand largely empty and high-street shopping strips are deserted. Lebanon is not yet a country at war, but nor is it at peace with itself.

Source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jun/09/lebanon-bravado-syria-replaced-by-fear

Qusayr captured: Syria’s army regains control of strategic town

Qusayr

Qusayr, a strategically important town in Syria, has been recaptured by Bashar al-Assad’s forces, who are being aided by Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah.

The town — located along major supply routes in between Damascus and the Mediterranean — was the center of intense clashes between the two sides over the past two weeks.

Syrian TV reported that the rebels withdrew overnight, and had suffered large casualties in the battle. Many also surrendered during the final offensive by the government’s forces.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based organization, also confirmed that Qusayr had fallen based on reports from activists and medics on the ground.

“The army and Hezbollah have succeeded in taking Qusayr after an intense bombardment of the town overnight,” the Observatory said. “The rebels have withdrawn to other areas because they were short of ammunition.”

The Army said in a statement that their recapturing of Qusayr sends “a clear message to all those who share in the aggression on Syria … that we will continue our string of victories until we regain every inch of Syrian land.”

“We will not hesitate to crush with an iron fist those who attack us. … Their fate is surrender or death,” the statement added.

Syria’s bloody two-year civil war has left upwards of 80,000 people dead, and has spilled over into neighboring countries both in its sparking of sectarian violence and the thousands of displaced Syrians seeking refuge.

Fighting was still ongoing in Dabaa and Buweida Al Sharqiya, the last village in the area under rebel control.

US to send Patriot missiles, F-16s to Jordan for drill

patriot

The United States will send a Patriot missile battery and F-16 fighters to Jordan for a military drill and may keep the weapons there to counter the threat posed by Syria’s civil war, officials said Monday.

The Patriot missile launchers and F-16 warplanes “were approved for deployment to Jordan as part of Exercise Eager Lion,” said Lieutenant Colonel T.G. Taylor, spokesman for US Central Command based in Tampa, Florida.

“In order to enhance the defensive posture and capacity of Jordan, some of these assets may remain beyond the exercise at the request of the Government of Jordan,” Taylor said in a statement.

US officials declined to say how many F-16 fighter jets would be taking part in the joint exercise or how many aircraft might stay in Jordan afterwards.

The United States backed a similar move earlier this year in Turkey, with the NATO alliance deploying Patriot missile batteries along Turkey’s volatile border with Syria.

The deployment of a Patriot anti-missile battery comes after warnings from Washington to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime against shipping advanced missiles to militants in Lebanon’s Hezbollah Shiite group, which is now openly taking part in the war in support of Damascus.

Israel has carried out air strikes in Syria in a bid to disrupt the possible delivery of missiles to the Hezbollah movement.

The decision to possibly station F-16s and missile batteries in Jordan will fuel speculation on a potential US military intervention, which the White House so far has described as a remote possibility.

“Given our strong alliance with Jordan and in light of circumstances in the region and escalating violence along Jordan’s borders, if requested some (weapons) may remain beyond the conclusion of the exercise to assist the Jordanian armed forces,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

“But no decision has been made yet on that,” she told reporters.

Jordan has hosted two previous “Eager Lion” exercises, involving more than 19 countries, including the United States.

The US Patriot batteries are designed to shoot down Scud or other short-range missiles, known to be in the Assad regime’s arsenal, and could also be employed as part of a no-fly-zone or other air operation.

The Pentagon already has sent about 200 troops to Jordan, including an element of a US Army headquarters, to help the country prepare for possible military action in Syria, including scenarios to secure the regime’s chemical weapons stockpiles.

Fighting raged Monday in Syria, with regime aircraft pounding the embattled town of Qusayr near the border with Lebanon, in a three-week-old offensive backed by Hezbollah forces.