Thursday, July 24, 2014

New Christian militas in Lebanon

Watchmen guard Ras Baalbek against attacks 
by Hikmat Samhan, The Daily Star 
“I haven’t gone up for three years,” he said. “There are no guarantees. Our east is occupied by Daesh.”
Samhan, a senior resident of Ras Baalbek, was using the Arabic acronym of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), the Al-Qaeda splinter group that has declared a “caliphate” last month in parts of Iraq and Syria.
Now the village, a few kilometers north of Arsal, has set up watch posts to track and guard against Syrian rebels hiding in the nearby hills on the border with Syria. If they attack, the village’s defenders can fight them off for a spell, Samhan said.
“Then the village will have woken and the Army would have woken, and maybe help would come from Hezbollah, because wherever they show up Hezbollah shows up,” he said.
Ras Baalbek is only a few kilometers from Syria, bordered by a lawless mountain range. Its 10,000 residents are overwhelmingly Christian.
But the village’s modest effort at self-defense and the anxieties of its residents shed light on the broader fears of Christians in the region, faced with ascendant extremism that threatens their ancestral homes.
It also offers a glimpse as to why many Christians in Lebanon are still allied with Hezbollah, despite, or because of, the party’s intervention in the Syrian civil war against radical Syrian rebel groups.
The defense of the village on a daily basis falls to men like Rifaat Nasrallah and other Ras Baalbek residents who have taken up meager arms to defend themselves against what they described as raids by ISIS.
Nasrallah, who was wounded in the first rocket attack to hit the village in January, is a member of the Resistance Brigades, an armed wing that was initially created by Hezbollah to incorporate non-Shiites who wished to join in the fight against Israel. (...)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Al-Akhbar on a Druze statelet

About two weeks ago the Lebanese pro-Assad daily Al-Akhbar featured an interesting report about a possible Druze statelet in Syria by its correspondent Firas Choufi. The report is both food for thought and full of propagandist features. Readers of this blog might remember, that the work of the author was discussed here already in January in the context of The alleged conversion of the Idlib Druze.

by Firas Choufi, Al-Akhbar 
The Druze community is observing the new developments in the region with great unease. The declaration of an Islamic caliphate is enough of a reason for minorities to worry about their future. And as Israeli projects are promoted by Druze collaborators to achieve “the illusion of a Druze statelet,” the Druze in Syria and Lebanon are committed to their nations and national armies, stressing that “We are not border guards for Israel, but we are in the heart of the Resistance.”
In a post Sykes-Picot world, it is certainly frightening for a small and scattered minority to find a place on the new map. The Druze, particularly in Lebanon and Syria, share existential fears with all other minorities in the Levant, and perhaps they even have more reasons to be worried.
The situation was exacerbated as the attempts to divide the region actually led to the establishment of a Kurdish statelet in northern Iraq and in parts of northern Syria, while a caliphate is expanding in the heart of the Syrian and Iraqi desert. (...)
Until this day, Druze commander Sultan Basha al-Atrash (who led the Syrian revolution against the French mandate), still holds a special place in the hearts of all the Druze. Atrash, the late Sweida chief, is renowned for refusing a French proposal in the 1920s that gave autonomy to the Mountain of the Druze and named it “Mountain of the Druze Governorship.”
This is a bit misleading. The legacy of Sultan al-Atrash is foremost build on leading a revolt against colonial rule and not by refusing any proposal. There are different narratives of Sultan's revolt and his Syrian nationalistic motivation is not beyond question. Many Israeli Druze e.g. hold Sultan  in high esteem as a symbol of Druze values and certainly not as a hero of Syrian- or Arab nationalism. In these regards I recommend the work of German Professor Birgit Schäbler on the reception of Sultan in the Syrian historiography.
The Druze also have other prominent heroes, including Kamal Abu Lteif, an officer in the Syrian army, originating from the town of Iha in Rachaya, and Kamal Kinj Abu Saleh, a lawyer from Majdal Shams in occupied Golan, both credited with uncovering an Israeli scheme in the aftermath of the 1967 war.
In his book “The Story Of The Druze State,” author Khaled Katme reports that the two Kamals aborted in mid-1968 an Israeli scheme to invade the south of Syria all the way to Sweida and the south of Lebanon all the way to Rachaya to establish a “Druze State” that would protect Israel’s northern borders.
The story was also cited by Israeli historian Shimon Aviv in his book “Copper Plate” and mentioned in the memoirs of General Sami al-Khatib.
The author touches one of the most interesting - but also over interpreted - episodes of the relationship between Israel and Syria's Druze: the project of an Israeli-sponsored Druze buffer state or to be more exact the Druze component of the so called Allon-plan. Vice-PM Yigal Allon propagated this idea in the government after the 6-Day War and again during Yom-Kippur War but was not met with great enthusiasm in the cabinet. The project had come to an end when the two gentlemen mentioned above leaked the Israeli plan to Lebanese Druze leader Kamal Junblat, than already a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause. Kamal Kanj, one of the most important Druze leaders on the Golan for decades, had helped to dismantle an Israeli spy ring on the Golan before-so to cooperate with him can be described as a huge intelligence failure.

Due to my lack of Hebrew I haven't been able to read the book by former Mossad-agent Shimon Avivi yet  - which is a shame (first time I hear about Khaled Katme's work, which I will look into). However, after scanning most available literature a few years ago and a discussion with a colleague who wrote a PhD about the Druze in Israel, my impression is, that the establishment of a Druze buffer state was never pushed forward seriously by the government of Israel and was more a private enterprise of Allon. Allon was indeed in a very powerful position and also served as interim PM after the death of PM Levy Eshkol in 1969.

Statements like "Israel has always tried to establish a Druze buffer state" (which are not funded on any facts, even though it seems like the idea of a Druze buffer state has found its way into the medial discourse in both the Arab world and Israeli (see here an Al Jazeera documentary).

One should keep in mind that the occupied Golan had been the core of Allon's buffers state and with the de facto annexation of the Golan Heights in late 1981 this concept became in fact obsolete.
About half a century after the idea of a “Druze statelet” was first proposed, information recently received by security officials monitoring the southern front in both Lebanon and Syria, suggests that Israel, which is already supporting the armed opposition in Syria, has recently reactivated its spy network of Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian Druze to carry out a propaganda campaign promoting that “Israel is about to occupy the liberated parts of Quneitra to distance it from the threats of the Syrian chaos, hence helping the Druze establish their own entity extending from the Golan to Sweida.”

The Israeli actions were preceded by remarkable steps taken by a man identified as Mounzer al-Safadi, a Majdal Shams native in the occupied Golan, who is rejected by residents of his hometown for his connections with Israel.
Safadi had changed his name to Mounzi and worked for a while as an office manager for Likud Minister Ayoob Kara. He is close to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and has already worked as a mediator between Israel and Syrian opposition figures.
In April 2012, Safadi visited Europe and informed wealthy Druze figures from Lebanon and Syria that Israel was planning to occupy Quneitra and the Druze should be ready to receive Israeli support to form their own autonomous region. Later in 2012, the Bulgarian and Israeli press published some information about Safadi’s visits to Sofia, the Bulgarian capital.
Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Safadi’s movements angered Israeli Ambassador to Bulgaria Shaul Kamisa-Raz, and that the latter even sent a cable to the Foreign Affairs Ministry complaining about Safadi’s activities.
Information also suggested that a Druze man from occupied Palestine managed to enter Lebanon in the summer of 2012 and introduced himself as Abu Youssef. He tried to convince several sheikhs of the Israeli scheme, but it fell on deaf ears.
Who? Ayoob Kara's former bureau chief (when Kara was deputy minister for the development of Negev and the Galilee in the last government) is called Mandi (Mendi) Safadi and in April he was announced as guest on Israeli international TV i24 with exactly this name. His Twitter and facebook accounts are also operatig in the same name. This leads to the question where Firas Choufi gets the idea from that Safadi changed his name?

It's the first time I hear from Safadi's activities towards diaspora Druze, but it sounds plausible, even though he might not have acted with an official Israeli mandate. Is he an agent or more like an impostor? Hard to tell, maybe he is both in a way. The activism of Kara and Safadi was not met with great enthusiasm in the cabinet. Despite being deputy minister for development of Negev and Galilee, Kara tried to raise his profile by acting as mostly self appointed envoy of Israel, or the Likud. Apart from the activities towards the Syrian opposition he also met with members of European far right parties, which led to protests of the respective Jewish communities in some countries because some of these parties have a long history of Antisemitism. While I have also heard from Israeli Druze about Kara's good link to Netanyahu, Kara is close to Moshe Feiglin's far right Jewish Leadership faction inside the Likud. Eventually, the ties to Feiglin led to Kara loosing his Knesset-seat after the 2013 election, since Netayahu tried to contain Feiglin's influence. With that being said, the closeness of both Kara and Safadi to Netanyahu should not be overstated.
Information also suggested that a Druze man from occupied Palestine managed to enter Lebanon in the summer of 2012 and introduced himself as Abu Youssef. He tried to convince several sheikhs of the Israeli scheme, but it fell on deaf ears.
Sources close to the Syrian authorities and Hezbollah did not deny that Israel seeks to further spread fragmentation in the region, even “after the Kurdish state and the caliphate, which are supported by both Turkey and Israel.”
“Whether ISIS remains or is replaced by another extremist group that claims moderation, the borders of the sectarian state have already been drawn, much like the borders of the Kurdish state,” the sources said.
The sources, however, warned that “this does not mean that partition became a fact in Syria, because the state is still strong and the resistance axis will fight partition with all its strength.”
“The conditions that once helped Israel to occupy southern Syria and Lebanon are now gone, and no Druze believes that there is a horizon for a viable Druze state on the demographic and economic levels,” the sources explained.
A Druze from Israel enters South Lebanon? How? Through the fence along the blue line? Via war torn Syria? Both scenarios sound unlikely and what has "Abu Youssef" done there? Touring Hasbayya area? If he would have really visited several mashaykh aren't we supposed to believe that Hizballah would have heard about it and arrested this man. The whole story sounds very fishy, especially since the real name of "Abu Youssef" is not mentioned.
Sources close to the Syrian authorities and Hezbollah did not deny that Israel seeks to further spread fragmentation in the region, even “after the Kurdish state and the caliphate, which are supported by both Turkey and Israel.” 
“Whether ISIS remains or is replaced by another extremist group that claims moderation, the borders of the sectarian state have already been drawn, much like the borders of the Kurdish state,” the sources said. 
The sources, however, warned that “this does not mean that partition became a fact in Syria, because the state is still strong and the resistance axis will fight partition with all its strength.” 
“The conditions that once helped Israel to occupy southern Syria and Lebanon are now gone, and no Druze believes that there is a horizon for a viable Druze state on the demographic and economic levels,” the sources explained. 
They stressed that “what Israel really wants is to create more seditions and transform the Druze community into its own guards, while it seeks to anticipate the Druze’s enrollment into new resistance factions that have started to appear on the Syrian scene.”
Partition is the ultimate evil 
In this time of continuous changes, it is difficult to anticipate the future of the region. However, categorically rejecting a partition and refusing to hold any sort of discussions about establishing an independent Druze entity seems overwhelming, at least in public. 
This stance is not restricted to prominent Druze figures and sheikhs in Syria or to Druze politicians and religious figures affiliated to March 8 camp in Lebanon, rather, it is shared by a large segment of Lebanon’s sheikhs, including those close to MP Walid Jumblat. 
In a position consistent with that taken by the Ajaweed (Syria’s Druze sheikhs), Lebanese sheikhs considered the partition of the Levant as “the ultimate evil. ”Speaking to Al-Akhbar, the Sheikh Akl (spiritual leader) of Syria’s Druze community, Hammoud al-Hannawi said, “the Druze will stand against any partition scheme in the region because our existence depends on the existence of a Syrian Arab state.” 
For his part, Sheikh Youssef Jarbouh said, “the only guaranty for the Druze is their national state and Sweida is a part of Syrian society.” Today, these stances are echoed in Chouf, Aley, Upper Metn, Hasbaya and Rachaya.
From the Syrian town of Arna at the versant of Mount Hermon, Sheikh Suleiman Abu Nabih Kabboul declared that “the sect, everywhere, stands against partition.” His remarks were echoed by the sheikhs of Khalwat al-Baida (a major religious sanctuary for the Druze in Lebanon). In an interview with Al-Akhbar, chief sheikh at Khalwat al-Baida, Sheikh Gahleb Qais said, “partition is destructive for the whole region, and the only option in front of the Druze is a state inclusive of all the segments of the people.”
Sheikh Suleiman Shoujaa pointed out that Druze “are a sect seeking unity,” while Sheikh Fandi Shoujaa stressed that “for us, any partition is unacceptable, we are monotheists and unifiers, Arabism is the unifying link outside sectarian divisions.”
The Druze in Aley also opposed partition with Sheikh Amin Sayegh’s visitors quoting him as saying “the Druze’s loyalty is to the national central state, not to religious statelets,” adding that “the Druze are not greedy and our religion does not seek expansion,” a position also shared with Sheikh Abu Suleiman Hassib al-Sayegh.
Sheikh Akl Nasreddin Gharib warned in an interview with Al-Akhbar that “partition would bring destruction and the Druze cannot approve schemes that seek to ruin the region.”
Even though this namedropping is annoying, it clearly illustrates how strong the Druze clergy is concerned with keeping the community out of trouble by affirming the loyalty towards the respective states. The rejection of a Druze statelet is no surprise, because the Druze have at no point in modern history aimed for an own state (even though the French had managed to co opt some Druze chiefs for their colonial Druze statelet). In this namedropping there are two interesting points, which demand further explanation: First Nasr ad-Din al-Gharib is referred to as the Lebanese shaikh al-‘aql (who represents the Druze community vis a vis the state) - he is not. The shaikh al-‘aql who was officially elected and is recognized by the Lebanese state is shaikh Naim Hassan. Only a minority recognizes al-Gharib, mostly the pro-Syrian followers of Talal Arslan and Wi’am Wahhab. Therefore it is no surprise that so many clerics are cited but Lebanon’s most prominent one is missing, since al-Akhbar can be described as very close to March 8.
Even the president of al-Irfan Foundation, Sheikh Ali Zeineddin, whom many accuse of secretly encouraging partition, told Al-Akhbar that “the Druze have no interest in partition, but on the contrary, partition may bring the sect to its end.” 
Here Choufi is clearly doing a job on behalf of March 8, when he tries to undermine the public image of the head of an important Druze charity organization close to political opponent Walid Junblat, by repeating unproven rumours.
Seventy-five kilometers between the caliphate and Sweida
People of the Druze Mountain consider the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Islamic State as “an existential threat against all the components of the Syrian and Iraqi peoples, as they have been dealing barbarically with those who oppose them, whether Sunnis or from minorities,” informed sources in the religious institution said. Unfortunately for Sweida residents, the caliphate’s militants are now headquartered just 75 km away from their district after taking over the Iraqi-Syrian-Jordanian border triangle. They are only separated from the eastern villages by the Asfar region in Syria’s Badia area, which is used to smuggle weapons and fighters toward Ghouta in the Damascus countryside.
Other sources within the religious institution have linked the unfolding events with “campaigns to buy lands in Badia funded by Saudi, Qatari and Jordanian organizations.” Besides, according to some sources “the Badia is floating on a sea of water, making it a certain ISIS target in the future.”
Sources on the ground have, however, reassured that “the ISIS does not currently pose a threat on Sweida, but the Syrian army, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party and armed committees in the district now consider the eastern villages a top priority after the recent events.” 
This is of course slightly overstated. The IS has no center of gravity in the area at the moment and is unlikely to march 75 kilometers through a mainly unpopulated area just to reach the outskirts of the Druze mountain. IS has other priorities in Iraq and other parts of Syria for now.  However, the perspective of Islamist rule being so close surely raises existential threats among Swaida’s Druze (for all my German speaking readers I emphasized this point over a year ago in an interview with 
Assassination of a Druze commander of the Syrian resistance
On Tuesday June 17, Sheikh Mouwafak Badrieh, also known as Abu Anad, a native of Hadr village in Mount Hermon, was killed in car bomb near Makroussa on al-Salam highway which links Quneitra to Damascus.
According to security sources, “initial information suggests that the blast was due to an explosive device planted in the car of martyr Badrieh by Mossad agents in the region, because of his role in the resistance against the Israeli enemy.”
Speaking to Al-Akhbar, local sources in Mount Hermon linked Badrieh’s assassination to “the launch of several rockets targeting the Israeli Mont Hermon observation post last March” even though Israel had already held the Syrian army and Hezbollah responsible for the attack.
While Syrian army and Hezbollah sources maintain silence about the recent resistance operations in Mount Hermon, local sources told Al-Akhbar “martyr Badrieh was part of a military formation deployed in Quneitra with a mission to damage Israeli interests in the Syrian occupied Golan.”
Wouldn’t it make way more sense for Israel to target a commander from Hizballah, which is also active on the Golan? Even if Abu Anad was involved in activities towards Israel, maybe via the Druze on occupied Golan (which I doubt), he was no real threat. The activity of the cells inside the Golan Druze community seem to have kinda stopped anyway since the outbreak of the civil war. That the regime or Hizballah allows a local Druze militia leader to launch rockets into Israel (and provoke a response), is even more unrealistic. It's by far more likely, that anti-regime forces killed Abu Anad, since there is reportedly heavy fighting going on in the area of Maqrusa.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Press round up minorities in Iraq

Vice magazine report from the Christian city of Qarqoush in Ninawa plains

Report about Kurdish Yazidis in Iraq in Arabic by LBCI (Lebanon)

by Mohammed A. Salih, Al Monitor
(...)“It was a dangerous situation for Christians,” Um Hanna told Al-Monitor, standing among her family members. “No one knows how the situation in Mosul will end for Christians.”

So far, at least, the worst fears of Um Hanna and many others like her have not come true.

Many like Um Hanna expected ISIS to engage in a campaign of eliminating non-Muslims — such as Christians and followers of the ancient Mesopotamian Yazidi faith. ISIS, it was assumed, would soon embark on destroying their cultural heritage in Mosul. A number of Christian community leaders Al-Monitor spoke with estimate a couple hundred Christians might still be in Mosul. But, the jihadists seem to have refrained from acts of large-scale violence against those groups or the systematic destruction of their religious or cultural symbols.

This stands in contrast to their track record in neighboring Syria, where they have engaged in a brutal campaign of killing significant numbers of followers of other religions. The ISIS militants in Syria have also destroyed religious and archaeological sites of minorities.

Comparatively, in Mosul, a few Christian monks and individuals appear to have been subjected to abductions. Accounts of killings are disputed and unverifiable at this point.

Despite media reports of ISIS plans to destroy Christian archaeological relics and religious sites, so far only a statue of the Virgin Mary appears to have been destroyed, based on accounts provided to Al-Monitor by knowledgeable sources on the ground(...)

Christians displaced again by Iraqi violence 
by Shaida al-Ameen, Al Monitor
AINKAWA, Iraq — An estimated 10,000 Christians have been displaced from the Nineveh plains to Iraqi Kurdistan during the past few days as a result of raids by the Islamic State, formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), surrounding the majority-Christian Hamdaniyah district. Al-Monitor has confirmed that shelters for displaced persons have been opened in the town of Ainkawa, in Erbil province. (...)
Ainkawa Mayor Jalal Habib told Al-Monitor, “Ten thousand Christian citizens were displaced to Ainkawa in the past few days, and 20 schools and youth centers were turned into shelters to accommodate them. Moreover, the Barzani Charity Foundation, UNHCR [UN High Commissioner for Refugees] and UNICEF … in addition to several other civil associations have provided humanitarian aid to the displaced.” (...)
Romeo Hakari, general secretary of the Bet-Nahrain Democratic Party, which represents Iraqi Christians' interests, told Al-Monitor: “The regions inhabited by Christians are located between the hammer and the anvil of the federal government and the Iraqi Kurdistan region, although the latter offered some services during the past two years to these regions. The task of taking care of the affected regions is the responsibility of the federal government and the Nineveh Provincial Council, which has not offered any real services in the past.”

Hakari said, “The Iraqi Kurdistan region specifically has to take care of these areas,” citing the inhabitants' feeling that Iraqi Kurdistan is their safe haven. “Fortunately, there weren’t any casualties in the wake of the raids. However, fear of arbitrary raids and attacks from the terrorist ISIS and other militias on their regions pushed thousands of Christians to flee to the Iraqi Kurdistan region. We tried to stop the wave of displacements, but fear has taken hold of the citizens and driven them out of their regions.”(...)
Patriarch Louis Raphaël I Sako
Patriarch Louis Raphaël I Sako
Patriarch Louis Raphaël I Sako

Video of Syriac militia Sutoro in Qamishli