Hezbollah is broke thanks to US sanctions, says White House official


Non-nuclear U.S. sanctions against Iran and its allies have led to Hezbollah being in “its worst financial shape in decades,” the top sanctions enforcement official told Congress.

“After many years of sanctions targeting Hezbollah, today the group is in its worst financial shape in decades,” Adam Szubin, the acting Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence told the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday. “And I can assure you that, alongside our international partners, we are working hard to put them out of business.”

Szubin described sanctions introduced in recent months to further isolate Hezbollah, a Lebanese militia that in 2006 fought a war against Israel and that Israeli intelligence believes has tens of thousands of missiles in place for the next war.

The House committee asked Szubin and two other top officials handling the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal to testify. Congressional Republicans and a number of Democrats have expressed concerns about reports that the U.S. is going out of its way to accommodate Iran in the sanctions relief for nuclear rollback deal.

Stephen Mull, the top U.S. official charged with implementing the deal, acknowledged that the United States was making it clear to third parties that some sanctions are no longer in place.

“In an effort to provide greater clarity to the public and private sectors on what sanctions were lifted and what non-nuclear sanctions remain in place, the Departments of State and Treasury have been participating in extensive outreach with the public and private sectors, mostly at the request of other governments, in order to explain U.S. commitments,” he said.

Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., the chairman of the committee, lacerated the sanctions officials for what he said was “the length the Obama administration has gone to accommodate Iran.”

“The administration told us that sanctions on Iran’s terrorism, human rights and ballistic missiles would be fully enforced after the agreement,” he said. “Yet, it now says that non-nuclear sanctions would undermine the Iran agreement. The White House’s Iran policy amounts to walking on eggshells.”

Szubin rejected the claim. “We have not lifted any of our sanctions designed to counter Iran’s destabilizing activities outside the nuclear file,” he said. “These sanctions are not just words on paper. We are vigorously enforcing them.”

Szubin also rejected reports that the Obama administration is contemplating implementing a system to allow Iran to trade in dollars. He outlined a number of areas where the United States is blocking Iranian non-nuclear activities that are otherwise subject to sanction, including its backing for Hezbollah, Iran’s chief proxy in the civil war in Syria.

Thomas Countryman, an assistant secretary of state, revealed that the U.S. assisted Israel in intercepting a Panamanian flagged vessel in the Red Sea that was bearing Iranian weapons. Previous reports on the March 2014 interception by the Israel Defense Forces did not mention U.S. involvement.

Countryman also discounted claims that the U.S. was not doing enough to keep Iran from testing ballistic missiles.

“Our policy on Iran’s ballistic missile program has not changed – Iran must cease this work, including ballistic missile launches,” he said.

Israel says 90 pct of Syria’s ballistic missiles used up on rebels


Syria has used up more than 90 percent of its ballistic missiles against rebels during a more than four-year-old civil war but a few were transferred to Hezbollah guerrillas in neighboring Lebanon, a senior Israeli military officer said on Wednesday. 

Israel, which is expanding its high-altitude Arrow air defence system with U.S. help, has been keeping an eye on Syria's Scud-type missiles as well as Iran's long-range Shehabs as potential threats. 

“The number of (Syrian) ballistic missiles left is less than 10 percent,” a senior Israeli officer told Reuters on condition of anonmity, but added: “That could still change. They could start making them again.” 

Syrian opposition activists say Damascus' army has fired dozens of devastating Scud-type missiles at rebel-held areas, out of a ballistic arsenal believed to have numbered in the hundreds before the insurgency erupted in 2011. 

Israel had a stable standoff with Syria's ruling Assad family for decades. It sees little chance of the now fractured Arab neighbour going to war with it now, but is still on guard for any accidental cross-border launches or deliberate attacks by jihadi rebels.

The Israelis are more worried about Iranian-backed Hezbollah, which fought their superior military to a standstill in a 2006 Lebanon war and has been building up its arsenal.

Hezbollah now has more than 100,000 rockets, including “around 10” advanced Scud-D missiles with conventional warheads supplied by Syria, the senior Israeli military officer said. 

Hezbollah does not comment publicly on its military capabilities but has confirmed improving them since 2006.

After Israel talks, Pentagon chief says: ‘Friends can disagree’


U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter never expected to win over Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the merits of the nuclear agreement with Iran but tried to put a brave face on their sometimes blunt, closed-door exchange on Tuesday.

“We don't agree on everything. And the prime minister made it quite clear that he disagreed with us on with respect to the nuclear deal,” Carter said at an airbase in Jordan.

“But friends can disagree.”

Since arriving in Israel on Sunday, Carter has sought to look beyond the political tensions between Israel and the United States that have only deepened since last week's announcement of a deal curbing Iran's nuclear program.

Carter, the first U.S. cabinet secretary to visit Israel since the deal, traveled to the northern border with Lebanon on Monday and promised to help counter Iranian proxies like Hezbollah.

Israel fears Iran-backed groups like Hezbollah will benefit from Iranian sanctions relief.

Netanyahu looked stern as he received Carter in Jerusalem and the two did not deliver expected public remarks to gathered reporters. Once behind closed doors, the prime minister, without referring to notes, detailed his objections.

“The Secretary did of course respond to those (objections) … we just agreed to disagree on certain issues,” a senior U.S. defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe the talks.

The official described Netanyahu as “blunt” and “passionate,” offering the same kinds of arguments privately that he has made at length in public. In his latest U.S. media offensive, Netanyahu has urged lawmakers to hold out for a better deal.

The U.S. Congress has 60 days from Monday to decide whether to approve or reject the deal. Republicans who control Congress have lined up in opposition, but Obama says he will veto any attempt to block it.

Israel has a strong army, is believed to have the region's only nuclear arsenal, and receives about $3 billion a year in military-related support from the United States.

That amount is expected to increase following the Iran deal, but the U.S. official said that issue did not come up.

“There was no discussion of money at all,” the official said.

Carter visited Jordan on Tuesday and will travel next to Saudi Arabia, which is engaged in a contest for power with Iran stretching across the region. Like Israel, Saudi Arabia fears the deal will bolster Iran's allies.

Hezbollah says Iran nuclear agreement ‘rules out specter of regional war’


The leader of Lebanon's Hezbollah said on Monday that a framework nuclear agreement that Iran reached with world powers last week rules out the specter of regional war.

“There is no doubt that the Iranian nuclear deal will be big and important to the region,” Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said in an interview with Syria's al-Ikhbariya television.

“The agreement, God willing, rules out the specter of regional war and world war,” he said.

The tentative accord, struck on Thursday after eight days of talks in Switzerland, clears the way for a settlement to allay Western fears that Iran could build an atomic bomb, with economic sanctions on Tehran being lifted in return.

Nasrallah said the accord would prevent conflict as “the Israeli enemy was always threatening to bomb Iranian facilities and that bombing would definitely lead to a regional war.”

The Shi'ite Muslim Hezbollah was founded with Iranian help in the 1980s to fight Israel in Lebanon. It has grown into a powerful political and military force and is fighting alongside President Bashar al-Assad's army in Syria's civil war.

Hezbollah says Israel wants to set ‘new rules’ with Syria raid


An Israeli attack which killed several prominent members of Lebanon's Hezbollah last week was an attempt by Israel to set “new rules” in the conflict between the two foes, Hezbollah's deputy leader said at a gathering to commemorate those who died.

Sheikh Naim Qassem's comments were the first reaction from the group's leadership to the missile attack in the Syrian province of Quneitra near the Israeli border.

Among those killed was an Iranian officer and the son of Hezbollah's late military chief. Israel has struck Hezbollah inSyria several times since the conflict there began, hitting weapons deliveries, but the group did not acknowledge these attacks.

However, the prominence of those killed in the latest raid will make it difficult to ignore for Hezbollah, putting the group under pressure to retaliate and also undermining a ceasefire between Israel and Syria.

“It is a Zionist attempt to lay the foundation for a new (military) equation in the framework of our struggle with them and achieve by these strikes what they could not achieve in war … But Israel is too weak to be able to draw new steps or new rules,” he told mourners.

Qassem did not elaborate but hinted that the group would respond. He said Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah would give the group's formal stance in the coming days.

“We will continue our jihad and we will be where we should be without (allowing) anything to stand in our way,” he said.

Hezbollah, which fought a 34-day war against Israel in 2006, could attack Israel from its Lebanon stronghold, hit Israeli interests abroad, or attack Israeli posts in the Golan Heights.

All options could trigger another all-out war or even a wider conflict between Israel and Syria.

Fighters from Iran-backed Hezbollah have been fighting alongside government forces in Syria's civil war and have helped turn the tide in favor of President Bashar al-Assad.

The group says it is fighting in Syria in part to prevent Islamist militant fighters, such as al Qaeda's Syrian wing, the Nusra Front, and Islamic State, from advancing into Lebanon.

Speaking to Israel's Army Radio, Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon declined to confirm or deny Israel had carried out the attack, but said reinforcements had been sent to the north.

“Given what was prevented on the Golan Heights, what was exposed is an Iranian effort, in partnership with Hezbollah, to open a front with us on the Golan Heights,” he said.

“They started with rockets and a few bombs. We understood that they apparently want to upgrade it to high-quality and far more significant terrorist attacks …,” the minister said.

L.A.’s Iranian Jews must launch new Iran advocacy campaign


Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to speak to a Southern California Christian group about the significant human rights violations that the Iranian regime has waged against the Christians, Jews and other religious minorities living in Iran today. While this congregation was sympathetic and very receptive to my brief discussion, they were completely in the dark regarding the plight of minorities, women, journalists and even average Muslim-Iranians facing tremendous hardships at the hands of Iran’s mullahs. 

Likewise, many average non-Jewish groups I have come across have by and large been totally unaware of the substantial role Iran has played in arming, funding and fanning the fires of terrorism perpetrated by Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon against Israel. Today the majority of Iranian Jews living in America very clearly see Iran’s significant role in destabilizing the entire Middle East, funding and arming terrorist groups, as well as calling for another Holocaust against Jews with their daily chants of “Death to Israel.” We as Iranian Jews not only understand the Farsi language declarations of genocide repeated by Iran’s ayatollahs, but the majority of us have experienced the evils of the Iranian regime firsthand. 

Nevertheless, the Iranian-Jewish community in Los Angeles has never undertaken its own serious, comprehensive and relentless public advocacy campaign to educate the larger non-Iranian American community about the very real and emerging dangers of Iran’s fundamentalist Islamic regime to the Middle East and the entire world. This education of the greater public about who the Iranian regime consists of and its objectives is essential in transforming the U.S. government’s approach to Iran’s threats against non-Shiite Muslims throughout the world. In my humble opinion, now is the time for L.A.’s Iranian Jews to stand up and undertake such a critical grassroots advocacy campaign to educate every other community in America about the rising threat of Iran’s regime.

For more than 30 years, I have witnessed my community of Iranian Jews in Southern California growing and prospering after establishing new roots here. They have flourished in America and also generously given back to the larger Jewish and non-Jewish communities. Iranian Jews in Los Angeles have even established their own nonprofit groups, such as the Iranian American Jewish Federation, Magbit, the Hope Foundation and 30 Years After, to advance our community issues and to help Israel. While Iranian-American Jews have also been involved with other organizations such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the American Jewish Committee about raising public awareness of Iran’s nuclear threat, they have never launched their own initiative to educate the Latino, African-American, Asian, labor union, LGBTQ and other communities about the horrific human-rights abuses and spread of global terrorism carried out by Iran’s clerics and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). So who better than Iranian Jews, who experienced firsthand anti-Semitism, random arrests, unceasing tortures and imprisonments at the hands of this Iranian regime, to speak out today about the evil nature of the regime? Who else but Iranian Jews, who have had family members randomly executed by the Iranian regime, to educate the public about the regime’s unmerciful thugs? Who else but Iranian Jews, who have witnessed their Christian, Baha’i, Zoroastrian, Sunni and other religious minority countrymen experience unspeakable abuse and murders at the hands of the Iranian regime’s secret police, to speak out? Who better than Iranian Jews to educate the larger American public about how Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and other regime strongmen are very openly calling for the elimination of all people who do not follow their radical form of Shia Islam? While in recent years, individual Jewish-Iranian activists in Los Angeles have indeed spoken out about the cancerous spread of the Iranian regime’s evil among its own people in Iran and the entire Middle East, much more of this type of public advocacy must be done on a larger scale by local Iranian Jews. Additionally, while the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, has attempted to put on a happy and nicer face for the Iranian regime with his public relations campaigns, we as Iranian Jews have a duty to remove the smiling mask from Rouhani and his minions in order to expose their true nature and evil actions to the American public.

More importantly, as Israel wages a war to defend innocent civilians from the terrorism of Hamas, Iranian Jews, who listen to Farsi language news broadcasts from Iranian state-run media, must make all Americans aware of what the regime’s leaders are saying about their role in perpetuating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For example, this past July, on Iranian-state run television, Khamenei called for all those who “love Palestine” to send arms to the West Bank and turn it into another Gaza. He also issued a religious edict for the IRGC and its subordinate Basij militia to send arms and fighters to the area. Likewise in July, the Iranian Islamic Assembly spokesman boasted on state-run television about the Iranian regime’s role in providing Hamas with rocket technology. The chairman of the Parliament of Iran, Ali Larijani, has repeatedly said on Iranian state-run news programs that Iran originally provided Hamas with the know-how to produce its own homemade rockets. Mohsen Rezai, the secretary of the Iranian regime’s Expediency Discernment Council, a high official in the regime, has recently called for more kidnappings of hundreds of Israelis and making them human shields in Gaza. Rezai has promised more arms and more financial support to Hamas until “all of Palestine is free of the Jews.” This information is very rarely reported by Western news media for whatever reason, but we as Iranian Jews have a duty to name and shame every single member of the Iranian regime who is calling for a perpetuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and glorifying the genocide of Jews in Israel. 

So as Iranian Jews, we must venture out of our enclaves in Beverly Hills, Pico-Robertson, Encino, Brentwood and Tarzana in order to reach out to every local group in Los Angeles. Whether it is speaking to the Christian-Korean community in Koreatown to discuss the Iranian regime’s abuse of Christians, or reaching out to the LGBTQ community in West Hollywood about how gays are forced to have gender reassignment surgeries and face executions in Iran, a new public advocacy program about the evils of the Iranian regime is imperative today. Without the larger public knowing what crimes against humanity the Iranian regime is committing, no one will raise a voice to our elected officials to ratchet up the pressure on the Iranian regime. No one will demand that the current U.S. administration take a tougher stance on Iran’s heinous human-rights records if we as Iranian-American Jews do not educate others about this regime. Just as American Jews proudly launched a very vocal and public campaign against the former Soviet Union for its mistreatment of Jews and human-rights activists in Russia during the 1960s and 1970s, so must we as Iranian Jews in America today launch the same type of campaign against the Iranian regime. In the end, as the first victims of the Iranian regime’s reign of terror and murder, it is incumbent on us to educate the American public and the larger world about the tsunami of evil Iran’s regime is seeking to unleash on the Middle East as well as the free world. If we continue to remain silent about the human-rights crimes carried out by the Iranian regime against all Iranians and the terrorism it sponsors against non-Iranians, we have committed an even greater crime.


Karmel Melamed is an attorney and award-winning journalist based in Southern California. His blog “Iranian American Jews” can be found at: jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews/

Report: Iran ordered Hezbollah to carry out attack on Israel over nuclear facility bombing


Iran instructed Hezbollah to attack Israeli forces on the border with Lebanon in retaliation for the “bombing” of Iran’s Parchin nuclear facility, a Kuwaiti newspaper reported.

The report Friday in the al-Rai newspaper cites high-level Washington-based European diplomats, who said a “foreign country” was responsible for the bombing of the military base and suspected nuclear facility.

The report also says that Western intelligence agencies believe that Iran has been conducting tests at Parchin. The bombing thwarted the tests, according to the report.

Hezbollah said Wednesday the attack on Lebanon’s border with Israel that left two Israeli soldiers injured was a “message” for Israel.

“This is a message. Even though we are busy in Syria and on the eastern front in Lebanon, our eyes remain open and our resistance is ready to confront the Israeli enemy,” Sheik Naim Qassem, Hezbollah’s deputy secretary-general, told Lebanese OTV television late Tuesday, Reuters reported.

Satellite images taken of Parchin after the explosion at the military facility show damage consistent with an air attack, defense expert Ronen Solomon told Israel Channel 2 and Defense Magazine.

Israel concerned about any U.S.-Iran cooperation in Iraq


Israel voiced concern on Monday at the prospect of its closest ally, Washington, cooperating with its what it considers its deadliest foe, Iran, to stave off a sectarian break-up of Iraq.

But, Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz told Reuters, the United States and other major powers have pledged that any such cooperation would not set back their drive to curb Tehran's nuclear program.

The Obama administration said on Sunday it was considering talks with Iran about the Iraqi crisis. Iranian officials have voiced openness to working with the Americans in helping Baghdad repel a Sunni Muslim insurgency.

While deploring the “ungodly horror” of the bloodshed in Iraq, Steinitz said Iran should not be helped to extend its sway in Iran where fellow Shi'ite Muslims form the majority.

That, he said would give Tehran an arc of control running through Syria, where the Iranians back embattled President Bashar Assad, and on to Lebanon, where they have powerful allies in the Hezbollah militia.

“And we would especially not want for a situation to be created where, because both the United States and Iran support the government of (Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri) al-Maliki, it softens the American positions on the issue which is most critical for the peace of the world, which is the Iranian nuclear issue,” Steinitz said in an interview.

Even before the Iraq crisis, Israel was concerned about Iran's nuclear talks with Washington and five other powers, aimed at ensuring Iran is not developing atomic weapons capability.

Israel fears Tehran would be able to shake off international sanctions built up over the last decade.

SEPARATION

Steinitz was cautiously optimistic that the negotiations would be unaffected by any international involvement in Iraq.

“We are troubled, but we have been made to understand by everyone – the Americans and the British and the French and the Germans – that a total separation will be enforced,” he said.

Steinitz said such a separation of policies would be similar to Russia's participation alongside Western powers in the Iranian nuclear talks even as it spars with them over Ukraine.

Neither Washington nor Tehran, old adversaries with often contrary interests in the Middle East, have articulated how they might cooperate in Iraq.

Washington has no appetite to send troops back to the country it occupied for almost a decade, but the Obama administration has suggested it could carry out air strikes against insurgents.

Steinitz, who regularly confers with the United States about the Iranian nuclear negotiations and other regional issues, said he did not know what actions the Americans might take in Iraq.

Western diplomats suspect Iran has in the past sent some of its Revolutionary Guards, an elite force separate from the regular army, to train and advise the Iraqi army or allied militia. During its occupation of Iraq, the United States said some attacks on its forces had Iranian help.

Iran says it has never sent forces to Iraq but might now assist the Maliki government with advisers and weaponry.

Another Israeli security official, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said deeper Iranian commitment in Iraq could make Tehran more accommodating in the nuclear talks as it might feel over-extended and reluctant to spark further crises.

“They would have to redirect resources, perhaps even pull their forces out of Syria to send to Iraq instead,” the second Israeli official said. “Let them sink into that new quagmire.”

Steinitz rejected this view, however, saying: “I would never look to solve one travesty with another travesty.”

Editing by Robin Pomeroy

Israel tests Arrow missile shield, sees Hezbollah threat


Israel successfully tested its upgraded Arrow missile interceptor for the second time on Friday, pushing forward work on a U.S.-backed defense against ballistic threats it sees from Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrillas as well as from Iran and Syria.

One of several elements of an integrated Israeli aerial shield, Arrow III is designed to deploy kamikaze satellites – known as “kill vehicles” – that track and slam into ballistic missiles above the earth's atmosphere, high enough to safely disintegrate any chemical, biological or nuclear warheads.

Iran and Syria have long had such missiles, and Israel believes some are now also possessed by their ally Hezbollah, whose growing arsenal in Lebanon, stocked in part by Damascus, preoccupies the Israelis as their most pressing menace.

Friday's launch of an Arrow III interceptor missile over the Mediterranean was the second flight of the system, but did not involve the interception of any target, officials said.

Israel deployed the previous version, Arrow II, more than a decade ago, rating its success in live trials at 90 percent.

“The Arrow III interceptor successfully launched and flew an exo-atmospheric trajectory through space,” Israel's Defense Ministry said in a statement.

Yair Ramati, head of the ministry's Israel Missile Defense Organization, told reporters that as part of the test, which was attended by U.S. officials, the interceptor jettisoned its booster and “the kill vehicle continued to fly in space (and) conducted various maneuvers … for a couple of minutes”.

Israel predicts Arrow III could be deployed by next year. The Pentagon and Boeing are partners in the project run by state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI).

MISSILE SHIELD

Arrow is the long-range segment in Israel's three-tier missile shield. This also includes the successfully deployed “Iron Dome”, which targets short-range rockets and mortar bombs favored by Palestinian guerrillas in Gaza, and the mid-range “David's Sling”, which is still under development. They can be deployed alongside U.S. counterpart systems like the Aegis.

In a Facebook posting, U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro called Friday's trial “another step forward in US-Israel cooperation in ballistic missile defense and ensuring Israel's security”.

The United States and Israel have been jointly working on Arrow since 1988. Washington says helping Israel build up the capability to shoot down missiles staves off escalatory wars – or preemptive Israeli strikes – in the Middle East.

Israel also sees it as a means of weathering enemy missile salvoes while it brings its offensive capabilities to bear.

“Developing such systems will let Israel maintain routine life despite the threats facing us, and will assist the IDF (Israeli military) in prevailing in combat quickly and efficiently, if required,” Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said on Twitter.

Israel is assumed to have the region's sole atomic arsenal, as well as delivery systems including long-range missiles, and has been bolstering defenses as potential threats proliferate.

It worries about Iranian ballistic missiles, whose number it estimates at around 400 – especially given the possibility Tehran could eventually produce nuclear warheads for them. Iran, which denies seeking the bomb, is negotiating with world powers about curbing its disputed nuclear program.

BALLISTIC MISSILES

The civil war in Syria has raised questions about President Bashar al-Assad's control over his own ballistic Scud missiles. Israel says Damascus has used around half of these against Syrian rebels. Separately, Assad is decommissioning chemical weapons with which Syria's missiles might have been armed.

Hezbollah is helping Assad battle the insurgency. Fearing the guerrillas might get advanced Syrian weaponry, Israel carried out at least three military strikes on suspected Lebanon-bound convoys last year, security sources said.

Such efforts may have had limited efficacy, however.

Briefing Reuters, a senior Israeli official estimated that Hezbollah now has between 60,000 and 70,000 rockets and missiles deployed throughout Lebanon, including a few dozen Syrian-supplied Scud Ds with ranges of 700 km (440 miles).

Hezbollah may also have hundreds of Fateh-110 missiles with ranges of 250-300 km (160-190 miles), the official said. Among the targets of the Israeli strikes on Syria last year, security sources said, was a shipment of Fateh-110s meant for Hezbollah.

“It's the most significant threat facing Israel today,” the official said of the Hezbollah missiles.

“We believe more than half the rockets and missiles are operational. They are on launchers, ready for launch. It's just a matter of a decision.”

Hezbollah confirms building up its arsenal since its 2006 border war with Israel. It does not give details of the arms.

The Israeli official, who declined to be identified by name given the sensitivity of the issue, was circumspect on how Israel's three-tier shield would function in a major missile exchange, which single-interception trials do not simulate.

“You need to pass this test – of a few dozen of them landing, in real time – to be able to speak about it with more certainty,” the official said.

Writing by Dan Williams; Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Patrick Graham and Giles Elgood

The Western Wall in Israel

Muslims, stop blaming Israel


Whenever calamities befall Muslim-majority nations, there is always a country to blame: Israel. Is there a revolution against a tyrant? Zionists are responsible. Who else could be at fault if there is a clash between Sunni and Shia groups? The Jews. Did a bomb explode on the other side of the world, or is there a problem with the economy? No need look any further than Israel. And where else would the control center for destabilizing the Arab world be? In Tel Aviv, of course!

The late Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi blamed Israel for the violence and unrest in Africa. Former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh said that the turmoil in the Arab world is a pro-Zionist conspiracy. Saudi cleric Sheikh Ismae’il al-Hafoufi blamed Israel for the desecration of Islamic holy sites in Syria. Sheik Abd al-Jalil al-Karouri, a Sudanese cleric, pointed to Israel for the Boston and Texas bombings. And then there’s the belief that Zionists planned the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, to demonize Arabs and Muslims in the eyes of the world.

This madness of putting the blame on Zionists — and Israel in general — is a knee-jerk reaction with no basis in logic. The most surprising part is that so many people believe this without question and continue to disseminate such rumors far and wide.

Syria, Egypt, Iran and Lebanon all aggressively hold the “Zionist regime” responsible for their woes. While Bashar Assad accuses Israel of trying to destabilize Syria, the Syrian opposition blames Israel for assisting the Assad regime by giving them diplomatic cover. Both sides see Israel as responsible for all the bloodshed and unrest going on in Syria. Now with the possibility of an international intervention in Syria, Iranian legislators and commanders are issuing blunt warnings, saying any military strike from the United States on Syria would lead to a retaliatory attack on Israel. Israel’s staying out of the equation, it seems, is simply not possible. Even though Israeli politicians refrain from taking sides in the regional conflicts, all sides point toward Israel anyhow.

On the other hand, we have the Egyptian coup d’état, where we see both sides ascribe blame to Israel. Interestingly, the Egyptian grass-roots protest movement Tamarod blames Israel but urges the Egyptian government not to renege on the Camp David accords. If Israel condemns the violence committed against the anti-coup alliance, she is labeled as an enemy of Egypt and accused of collaborating to destroy the Egyptian army. Even the state-allied newspaper al-Ahram claimed that Israel is in an alliance to demolish the Egyptian army and to balkanize the country. Furthermore, in 2010, an Egyptian government official blamed Israel intelligence for a fatal shark attack off Egypt’s shores.

It must sound like a bizarre joke for some, but this tragicomic situation is quite serious for many in the Middle East. We are no longer surprised to hear Israel’s being the scapegoat for every single evil in the world, but Iran’s blaming the Zionist entity for the deadly earthquake in Iran was pushing the limits of credulity. This, despite the fact that Jews are a handful of people, a tiny population when compared to the overall population of the world.

Now let’s look at what is really going on in the Islamic-Arab world. There is a continuous and unending stream of hate — hate of the Shia, hate of the Wahabbi, hate of the Sunni, hate of the Alawi, hate of the Christians, hate of the Jews and so on. We also see slogans such as: “May God Destroy Israel,” “Down With the United States,” “Damn the West.” Hatred is deeply ingrained in their tradition, in their culture and in their own education. This fierce, venomous style is what is tearing the Islamic world apart; this is exactly what is happening in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Pakistan and others — Muslims killing Muslims.

This outcome is the result of intense efforts by some Muslim clerics who encourage hatred of the “other.” Muslims kill each other and then both sides blame the Jews. Wahabbi scholars say that all Sunnis are unbelievers and should be destroyed. Sunni scholars say Shias are unbelievers and their death is obligatory. Shias say that it is obligatory to kill Sunnis, as they are enemies. These are Muslim clerics who are promoting the most violent brand of sectarianism, preaching hatred and calling upon their followers to commit massacres. How do Jews make Muslims kill other Muslims?

When Muslim followers heed these clerical calls for violence, these same clerics turn around and promptly blame the Jews. What about calls for Muslims to not kill each other? What about Muslims unifying to solve their own problems without resorting to violence? What about the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, with its 57 member states, or the League of Arab States, with its 22 states, both which seem utterly helpless to bring about any solutions?

Some religious scholars have led many ignorant people astray with their false teachings, which plant seeds of hate. They implement a faith they have largely invented under the name of Islam — a faith that includes hatred, violence, darkness, which attaches no value to human life. They espouse bloodshed in the name of Islam, spreading hatred toward Christians, Jews and even other Muslims. These loveless, misguided people are most definitely not Muslims, but bigots and radicals.

As Muslims, let’s stop pointing the finger at others for our problems. It is time for the Muslim world to take responsibility and to ponder what has gone so horribly wrong with the Muslim world. Why is there so much bloodshed? Superstitions, innovations, localized traditions and bigotry have replaced the Quran in some Islamic countries, and their religiosity is a deeply artificial one. This hatred has to stop and Muslims must embrace the true spirit of the Quran, which is love, compassion and brotherhood for all.


Sinem Tezyapar is a political and religious commentator from Turkey, and an executive producer at a Turkish TV network.

Iran looks to the north


In the United States, our focus is on Iran’s activities to its west and east. Tehran supports Bashar Assad in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, menaces oil exports in the Gulf and threatens Israel with annihilation. On its other flank, it seeks influence in Afghanistan as U.S. and NATO forces prepare to withdraw. However, we tend to ignore Iran’s actions to its north, even as this — the greater Caspian region — emerges as a particularly active theater for Iran’s ambitions of regional power.

We do so to our detriment. With Washington’s focus elsewhere during the past few months, Iran has steadily pushed the envelope with its northern neighbors, in the disputed Caspian Sea and along its land borders with Armenia and Azerbaijan. While Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, is considered more moderate than his predecessor, since his election, Iran seems to be continuing its northward pivot.

In late June, Iranian warships sailed across the Caspian Sea to the Russian port of Astrakhan. Their mission was to coordinate plans for a major joint naval exercise in the fall. This is noteworthy because not only is the Caspian a center of oil production that is exported to Western markets, but also a key transit hub for the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces and equipment from Afghanistan. Vessels with U.S. military hardware routinely sail from Kazakhstan’s port of Aktau on the eastern shore to Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, in the west. Joint Iranian-Russian naval exercises could disrupt both the energy and transit activities on the sea.

It would not be the first time. Iranian warships have, in the past, threatened to attack Azerbaijani oil fields that were at the time being explored by BP vessels. The issue of how the Caspian’s energy-rich waters are divided among the littoral states remains unresolved. While most of the countries on its shores have come to bilateral understandings, Iran refuses to cooperate with any of its neighbors — except when it teams with Russia to threaten the rest.

Iran is also injecting itself into the region’s most protracted conflict: the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan. While Iran supported pro-Russian Armenia in the 1990s against secular, pro-Western Azerbaijan, Iranian clerics are now painting the conflict as a war against Islam. They recently met with ethnic Azeris seeking to liberate Karabakh. 

On the other hand, Tehran has cultivated pro-Iranian groups and extremist clerics in Azerbaijan to undermine the government in Baku. It has mobilized hacker attacks under the banner of the Iranian Cyber Army. These activities are intensifying as the October presidential election in Azerbaijan approaches.

Earlier this year, Iranian lawmakers on the Security and Foreign Policy Committee in Parliament released a number of statements demanding the annexation of 17 of Azerbaijan’s cities, including the capital Baku. They prepared a bill that would revise the 1828 treaty demarcating Iran’s northern border to pave the way for a greater Iran that could incorporate territory from across the Caspian region, from Turkey to Central Asia. It seems that Israel is not the only country that Tehran has considered wiping off the map.

These sorts of actions have actually pushed Azerbaijan and Israel closer together. The two have a joint venture on the production of drone aircraft, as well as a wider defense technology relationship wherein Azerbaijan has sought anti-aircraft systems from Israel to guard against potential Iranian attack. Such threats are all too specific for Azerbaijan, as Iran’s leadership has consistently mentioned Azerbaijan’s major oil pipeline from the Caspian to the Mediterranean as a primary target in the event of conflict with the West.

Were such a clash to occur, it would behoove U.S. policymakers to be more cognizant of the northern angle in Iran’s aggressive regional policy. Even without the prospect of a major conflict, U.S. Iran policy should reflect Tehran’s threats to our interests in the Caspian and to regional partners such as Azerbaijan. For all Iran watchers, its activities to its north will serve as a key test of Mr. Rouhani’s supposed moderation.

Reprinted with permission from The Washington Times.


Alexandros Petersen is the author of “The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West” (Praeger, 2011).

France says 3,000-4,000 Hezbollah are fighting in Syria


France said on Wednesday its intelligence services believed 3-4,000 guerillas from Lebanon's Hezbollah militia fighting alongside President Bashar Assad's army in Syria's civil war.

“As far as Hezbollah militants present in the battlefield, the figures range from 3,000 to 10,000, our estimates are between 3,000 and 4,000,” Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told lawmakers.

The United Nations' human rights chief Navi Pillay said on Wednesday a dramatic increase in the role of Iran-backed Hezbollah militants backing Syrian government forces was inflaming regional tensions, without giving numbers.

Fabius pointed the finger at Iran for pushing Hezbollah into the Syrian conflict.

“When you have fighters that are really well armed that are prepared to die and they are several thousand that makes a difference,” he said.

[Related: U.S. calls on Hezbollah to pull fighters out of Syria]

Fabius has dismissed any suggestion that Iran could be involved in resolving the Syrian crisis, because of its backing of Assad's government.

“There has been a change on the ground. The involvement of Hezbollah and the fact the Russians have delivered weapons has changed things,” he said. “Even if many elements that are fighting are Syrian, they are being guided by Iranian officials.”

France said on May 23 it hoped an initiative could be agreed by the end of June to put the armed wing of Hezbollah on the EU's list of terrorist organizations, on the grounds the group is importing Syria's war into Lebanon.

Paris has traditionally been cautious about backing steps to sanction Hezbollah, fearing it could destabilize Lebanon and put U.N. peacekeepers at risk, but in recent weeks has said it would consider all options.

Reporting by John Irish; editing by Andrew Roche

Assad vows ‘strategic revenge’ on Israel, modeled on Hezbollah


Syria will “give Hezbollah everything” in recognition of its support and will follow the terror group’s model of “resistance” against Israel, a Lebanese newspaper on Thursday quoted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as saying, AFP reported.

Assad’s comments, published by Al-Akhbar, reportedly came during meetings with Lebanese visitors in Damascus and appeared intended to refute any suggestion that last week’s reported Israeli airstrikes on Syrian targets would halt assistance to the Shiite group Hezbollah in Lebanon. Al-Akhbar said Lebanese visitors quoted Assad as expressing “confidence, satisfaction and great gratitude towards Hezbollah.”

Iranian-backed Hezbollah is a longtime ally of the Syrian regime and has sent fighters to battle alongside Assad’s troops, particularly in the Qusayr district of the central province of Homs. Assad said Syria would reward Hezbollah for its loyalty.

Assad said Syria could “easily” respond to Israeli airstrikes by “firing a few rockets at Israel,” but Syria instead was seeking “strategic revenge, by opening the door of resistance and turning all of Syria into a country of resistance.”

Israel did not warn U.S. on Syria attacks, U.S. official says


Israel did not provide advance warning to the United States on its alleged Israeli airstrikes on Syria, a U.S. intelligence official said.

The unnamed official said the United States was told of the attacks as they were in progress, Reuters reported Monday.

The Israel Defense Forces has neither confirmed nor denied responsibility for attacks Friday and Sunday on what has been reported to be a shipment of long-range missiles from Iran en route to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Sunday afternoon that President Obama believes “the Israelis are justifiably concerned about the threat posed by Hezbollah obtaining advanced weapons systems, including some long-range missiles.” Earnest added that the U.S. “is in very close contact” with the Israeli government.

Syrian state media accused Israel of an early Sunday morning attack on what it identified as the Jamraya military research center located approximately 10 miles from the border with Lebanon.

The New York Times reported late Sunday, citing rebels and local residents, that the strike on the research center killed more than 100 Syrian soldiers, many of them members of the country's elite Republican Guard, along with hitting the long-range missiles.

Reuters cited an unnamed “Western intelligence source” who confirmed the attack and said Israel targeted stores of long-range Fateh-110 missiles. The missiles have the capacity to strike Tel Aviv from Lebanon.

Few options for Syria’s Assad to strike back after Israeli raids


Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has few good options for military retaliation after Israel's air strikes over the weekend but the attacks could redouble support from his regional allies Iran and Hezbollah.

Assad, already battling rebel fighters who have seized large parts of his country and killed many thousands of his troops, can ill afford to confront the region's dominant military power in a devastating and likely one-sided war.

And his allies in Iran and Hezbollah are also wary of starting a new battle which would divert from their determined efforts to keep their strategic ally in power in Damascus.

“Significant military action is unlikely,” said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre. “Syria, Hezbollah and Iran are not interested in opening another front when clearly their main battle is for the Syrian regime to survive.”

Israel's twin air strikes within 48 hours shook Damascus, sent pillars of flame into the night sky and killed dozens of soldiers.

The war planes struck Assad's elite troops in the valley of the Barada River that flows through Damascus and on Qasioun Mountain overlooking the capital, said residents and opposition sources. Targets included air defenses, Republican Guards and a compound linked to chemical weapons.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 42 soldiers were killed and 100 more were missing. Other opposition sources put the death toll at hundreds of troops. A Western security source said the attacks targeted Iranian missiles intended for Hezbollah which could strike Tel Aviv.

Both Damascus and Tehran have hinted at a tough response.

Syria's information minister said the attacks “opened the door to all possibilities”. Iran's foreign ministry spokesman warned of a “crushing response”.

Syria did not retaliate in 2007 when Israeli jets struck a suspected nuclear facility, nor in January this year when they bombed a suspected missile convoy. On each occasion Damascus said it would choose the time and place to respond.

But the scale of the latest operation will pile pressure on Assad to respond, “not only to save face but also to maintain credibility at home and in the region,” said Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics.

“That's where Assad's predicament is – what do you do, given the limited options?” he said.

A GOLAN FRONT?

Two years into the uprising against his rule – which has spiraled into a civil war pitting mainly Sunni Muslim rebels against a president from Syria's Alawite minority sect – Assad still has regional supporters.

As well as Iran and Hezbollah, Damascus also has links to some militant Palestinian groups and has a degree of support from neighboring Iraq's Shi'ite-led authorities, who have turned a blind eye to Iranian weapons cargoes flown across Iraqi airspace, according to a senior Iraqi Shi'ite leader.

Syria's pro-government Al-Ikhbariya television gave an indication of what Assad might be considering, quoting unnamed sources who said that Syrian rockets were ready to strike targets inside Israel in the event of any new attack.

It also said Syria had given the green light to Palestinian factions to carry out operations against Israel from across the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

However, neither of those warnings have been spelled out publicly by Syrian officials, and any direct Syrian rocket fire on Israel would be likely to provoke an overwhelming Israeli response.

Perhaps ironically, the step that Assad could take in the Golan that might most alarm Israel would be to retreat from it.

Through four decades of official hostility with Israel, Assad and his father before him kept the Golan Heights frontier quiet. Were Assad to pull back troops, Israel is worried that the heights it captured from Syria in 1967 could become a springboard for attacks on Israelis by the jihadi rebels who are currently battling to topple Assad.

“I would not be surprised if the Assad regime begins the process of pulling out its forces from the Golan to Damascus,” said Gerges. “The (rebel) Nusra Front and other groups are preparing themselves for the ultimate war against Israel…so this would create a strategic predicament for Israel.”

A Western diplomat in the region said that if the Nusra Front gained territory on the Golan Heights it would inevitably suck Israel deeper into to conflict.

“They will not accept that Islamist extremists gain ground,” he said.

HEZBOLLAH SILENCE

Hezbollah, Assad's Lebanese ally which fought a 34-day war with Israel in 2006, has maintained a resolute silence over the Israeli raids on Damascus.

Israel believes Hezbollah has built up an arsenal of about 60,000 missiles and rockets, making it potentially a more formidable foe than in 2006, when the militant group fired 4,000 missiles into Israel.

“Hezbollah has to tread carefully because they can't afford to be fighting in Syria (against the rebels) and provoking Israel on the Israel-Lebanon border,” said another diplomat.

The militant Shi'ite Muslim group, which is accused by Bulgaria of a bombing which killed five Israeli tourists in a Black Sea resort last year, could seek to strike Israeli targets abroad instead of seeking direct confrontation.

But Gerges said the most likely response would be to reinforce its backing for Assad.

“Both Hezbollah and Iran will respond to Israel's escalation by deepening their own involvement in Syria,” he said. “Israel's logic says: 'We will not allow any transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah'. If you deepen Hezbollah and Iranian involvement in Syria, you are punching holes in this logic.”

That deepening support from Assad's allies, matched by the growing support from Gulf Arab countries and Turkey for his rebel foes, could push the Syrian crisis – which has already killed 70,000 people according to the United Nations – one step closer to regional conflict.

“The risk factor has become much more acute in recent weeks,” the second diplomat said, referring to the prospect of a broader war.

Assad has vowed to defeat the rebels and his troops have launched recent counter-offensives around Damascus, the central city of Homs and the coastal province of Banias, where activists said his forces killed scores of people.

Israel cannot assume that the Syrian leader will remain passive if it continues its attacks inside Syria's borders, the former director of Israel's espionage agency Mossad said.

“The broader the strike, the greater the chance that Assad will have no choice to respond,” Danny Yatom told Israel Radio. “The Syrians too have limits. And the limit is not necessarily a blow to Syrian sovereignty, but rather a blow to Syrian honor.”

Additional reporting by Samia Nakhoul in Amman, Dan Williams in Jerusalem, Suadad al-Salhi in Baghdad and Yeganeh Torbati in Dubai; Editing by Peter Graff

Syria attacks suggest Israel can act with impunity


Twice in three days, Israeli warplanes entered Syrian airspace and fired on suspected weapons caches bound for Hezbollah — and nothing has happened in response.

Some experts are predicting that will continue to be the case following airstrikes near Damascus on Friday and Sunday that are widely believed to be the work of the Israel Defense Forces. According to reports, the strikes targeted shipments of long-range, Iranian-made Fateh-110 missiles capable of striking deep into Israel.

Israel hasn’t commented on the strikes, but the IDF has moved two Iron Dome missile defense batteries to its northern border and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delayed his departure to China for several hours to convene his security cabinet. Meanwhile, Syria’s foreign minister told CNN on Sunday that the strikes amounted to a “declaration of war.”

But such gestures, analysts say, are merely symbolic. Torn by a civil war now in its third year, the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad is too beleaguered to fight back. And Hezbollah, the Lebanese party considered a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel, is considered too preoccupied propping up its Syrian patron to respond.

“Today Israel can act with impunity in Syria,” said Hillel Frisch, an expert on Arab politics at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. “The [Syrian] air force isn’t functioning and there’s no defense system. It’s very exposed and weak.”

Syria's civil war augurs a major strategic shift for Israel. The two countries have technically have been in a state of war since the Yom Kippur War ended in 1973. And though the border since then has been largely quiet, Syria was Israel's only neighbor to pose a threat of conventional attack.

But the weakening of the Syrian regime has raised the frightening prospect that its stocks of chemical weapons may fall into the hands of Hezbollah. Israeli officials have said for months that they would take action should Syria transport unconventional weapons to Hezbollah. In January, Israel bombed a Syrian weapons convoy near the Syria-Lebanon border. In 2007, Israel allegedly bombed a Syrian nuclear reactor.

Syria and Hezbollah didn’t respond to those attacks, either. But Hezbollah expert Eyal Zisser said Israel still needs to remain cautious.

“Don’t play with your luck,” said Zisser, also from the Begin-Sadat Center. “There might be a response. Eventually something will happen. Everybody is taking precautions.”

Shlomo Brom, a senior research associate at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, said the attack sent a message that Israel will act unilaterally if  deemed necessary — in this case, the transfer of long-range weaponry to Hezbollah.

“There needs to be a reason for these attacks,” Brom said. “There was an attack because they crossed our red lines. If they stop crossing our red lines, we won’t hit every weapons transfer.”

Brom added that Hezbollah may avenge the weekend’s attacks several years from now, noting that its deadly bus bombing last year in Bulgaria may have been a response to Israel’s alleged assassination of a senior Hezbollah officer, Imad Mughniyah, in 2008.

Israel reportedly did not notify the United States before the strikes. On Saturday, President Obama said that Israel has the right to defend itself and that he will “let the Israeli government confirm or deny whatever strikes that they've taken.”

“What I have said in the past and I continue to believe is that the Israelis justifiably have to guard against the transfer of advanced weaponry to terrorist organizations like Hezbollah,” he told the Spanish-language network Telemundo. “We coordinate closely with the Israelis recognizing they are very close to Syria, they are very close to Lebanon.”

The attacks, according to Frisch, also showed Iran that Israel could bomb the Islamic Republic's suspected nuclear weapons program — a possibility Netanyahu frequently raises. But Brom called an attack on Iran “a totally different story — a lot harder and a lot more complicated.”

Whatever the attack’s long-term implications, Zisser said Israel's Syrian border is likely to remain quiet during the coming days.

“We are making too much of this,” he said. “We need to be patient.”

Fearful Syrian voters will keep Assad in power, Hezbollah deputy leader says


Syrian President Bashar Assad is likely to run for re-election next year and win, with Syria remaining in military and political deadlock until then, said the deputy leader of Lebanon's Iranian-backed Hezbollah group.

Sheikh Naim Qassem, who predicted a year ago that Assad would not be dislodged from power, said the Syrian leader would win a vote because his supporters understood that their communities' very existence depended on him.

“I believe that in a year's time he will stand for the presidency. It will be the people's choice, and I believe the people will choose him,” said the bearded, turban-wearing Shi'ite cleric, speaking carefully and deliberately.

“The crisis in Syria is prolonged, and the West and the international community have been surprised by the degree of steadfastness and popularity of the regime.”

Citing rifts among Assad's foes inside and outside Syria, as well as disagreements among world powers over Assad's future, Qassem said any talk of political solutions was futile for now.

“It will take at least three or four months” for any such solution, he said in a meeting with Reuters editors. “Maybe things will continue until 2014 and the presidential election.”

The two-year-old revolt against Assad is the bloodiest and most protracted of the Arab uprisings. At least 70,000 people have been killed and the violence has stoked tensions across the Middle East between the two main branches of Islam.

Shi'ite Iran and Hezbollah have supported Assad, whose Alawite sect derives from Shi'ite Islam. The mainly Sunni rebels are backed by Sunni powers Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.

Some Western leaders have long predicted Assad's imminent demise, but Qassem said he was likely to be re-elected in 2014.

BLACKED-OUT WINDOWS

Wearing brown robes and a white turban, he spoke in a windowless office in Hezbollah's southern Beirut stronghold.

Journalists were driven to the undisclosed venue in a car with blacked-out windows, a security precaution in violence-prone Lebanon. Three Hezbollah leaders have been assassinated in the past two decades; the group blames Israel for the killings.

Hezbollah, the most accomplished military force in Lebanon, fought Israel to a standstill in a 2006 war and, with its mainly Shi'ite and Christian allies, now holds a majority of cabinet seats in Prime Minister Najib Mikati's government.

Mikati has tried to insulate his country from the fighting in Syria but Lebanese Shi'ites and Sunnis have both been drawn into the fighting. Hezbollah denies accusations that it has sent its forces into Syria to fight alongside Assad's troops.

Despite significant and sustained rebel gains, Qassem said the Syrian authorities had scored a string of military successes since insurgents launched attacks in Damascus a few months ago.

“The regime has started winning clearly, point by point,” he said. “And the tensions among the countries supporting the armed (rebel) groups have become clearer.”

Assad's forces still control central Damascus and large parts of the cities of Homs, Hama and Aleppo to the north. But they have lost swathes of territory in the rural north and most of the eastern towns and cities along the Euphrates River.

In such areas, the Syrian military relies heavily on missiles, artillery and air strikes to pin back rebel advances.

RISK OF DISINTEGRATION

Qassem said Syria only had one viable option: “Either they reach a political solution, in agreement with President Assad … or there can be no alternative regime in Syria,” he said.

Asked whether Syria might fall apart, he replied: “Everything is possible.”

Syria's population includes Christians, Shi'ites, Alawites, Druze and Ismailis as well as majority Sunnis who include mystical Sufis and secularists as well as pious conservatives.

Qassem portrayed authorities as fighting to protect that diversity in the face of hardline Sunni Islamist rebels. “The regime is defending itself in a battle which it sees as an existential fight, not a struggle for power,” he said.

Assad also faced international opposition from countries trying to break the “resistance project,” a reference to the anti-Israel alliance of Syria, Hezbollah and Iran, he added.

Israel, which diplomats and regional security sources said bombed a convoy in Syria two months ago carrying weapons which may have been destined for Hezbollah, has warned that military action may be needed to stop Iran's nuclear programme.

Israel and Western nations suspect Iran is seeking atomic weapons, a charge it denies. Israel says a “clear and credible military threat” against Iran is needed to halt Tehran's work.

But Qassem said the United States was reluctant to get dragged into a “costly” conflict with Tehran.

“It would not halt Iran's peaceful nuclear programme but would just delay it for a few years,” he said. “In return America's interests in the region and those of its allies and Israel would be in great and unpredictable danger.”

Washington's caution over Iran had echoes in what he said was its equivocal position towards Syria.

Although the United States says it provides only non-lethal aid to the rebels, Qassem said the presence of U.S.-made weapons in Syria proved it had at very least given approval for third countries to ship arms to Assad's opponents.

But the prolonged fighting had put Washington in a dilemma about whether to “follow the political path” instead, he said.

“America has lost its way over the steps it wants to take in Syria. On the one hand it wants the regime overthrown, and on the other it fears losing control after the regime falls.”

Additional reporting by Laila Bassam; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Alistair Lyon

Iranian Guards commander killed in Syria


An Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander has been killed inside Syria by rebels battling Iran's close ally President Bashar Assad, Iranian officials and a rebel leader said on Thursday.

Syrian rebels have repeatedly accused Tehran of sending fighters to help Assad crush the 22-month-old uprising, a charge Iran has denied.

The Iranian embassy in Lebanon said the dead man, Hessam Khoshnevis, was in charge of Tehran's reconstruction assistance in Lebanon. It said he was killed by “armed terrorist groups,” a label used by the Syrian government to describe Assad's foes, on the road to Lebanon as he returned from Damascus.

A Syrian opposition commander said the attack was carried out by rebel fighters near the Syrian town of Zabadani close to the Lebanese border.

Iran has strongly backed Assad during the uprising in which the United Nations says nearly 70,000 people have been killed. In September Iran's Revolutionary Guards commander-in-chief said the force was providing non-military support in Syria and may get involved militarily if there is foreign intervention.

Last year Syrian rebels kidnapped 48 Iranians who they said were Revolutionary Guards fighters and authorities in Tehran described as pilgrims. They released them this year in a prisoner swap with Syrian authorities.

Details of Khoshnevis's killing, which Iranian news agencies said happened on Tuesday, were sketchy and Iran's envoy to Beirut drew a link with Israel.

Forty eight hours after his death no rebel brigade had claimed responsibility but He said he did not have more details.

“He served the oppressed, supporting the resistance to Israel,” Iran's ambassador to Beirut Ghazanfar Roknabadi told reporters as he received condolences from senior Lebanese officials. “Assassinating this dear martyr is a clear sign that the Zionist enemy does not accept his successful work”.

In Tehran, a funeral service was held for Khoshnevis on Thursday, Iran's semi-official Fars news agency reported, attended by senior Revolutionary Guards commanders.

TEHRAN BACKS ASSAD

Tehran's IRNA news agency said Khoshnevis, identified in some reports as Commander Hassan Shateri, was a military engineer during the 1980-88 conflict between Iran and Iraq, and later operated in Afghanistan.

But officials stressed Khoshnevis was engaged in civilian reconstruction in Lebanon for the last seven years and Lebanon's Al-Safir newspaper said had been in Syria to study reconstruction plans for the northern city of Aleppo.

Whole districts of Aleppo, Syria's largest city, and other urban centers across the country, have been destroyed in months of entrenched urban warfare. Assad has used air strikes and artillery to push back rebels, who have become increasingly well-armed as the conflict approaches its third year.

The Iranian Revolutionary Guards public relations office said Khoshnevis would be buried in his home town of Semnan after being “martyred on his way from Damascus to Beirut by mercenaries”.

Additional reporting by Zahra Hosseinian; editing by Janet McBride

Iran denies involvement in Bulgaria bomb attack


Iran played no part in the bombing of a bus last year that killed Israeli tourists, its ambassador to Bulgaria said on Friday, rejecting Israeli charges that it was involved in the attack.

Bulgaria has accused the Iranian-backed Hezbollah of carrying out the July attack, a charge the Lebanese Shi'ite Islamist militia dismissed as part of a smear campaign by its arch foe Israel.

“This (the attack) has nothing to do with Iran,” Gholamreza Bageri told reporters. “We are against any form of terrorism and strongly condemn such actions.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week accused Hezbollah and Iran of waging a “global terror campaign” after the attack in Burgas, which killed five Israeli tourists, their Bulgarian driver and the bomber.

Given the link to an attack on European Union soil, Brussels is considering adding Hezbollah – which is part of the Lebanese government and waged a brief war with Israel in 2006 – to its list of terrorist organizations.

The United States already lists Hezbollah as a terrorist group and U.S. and Israeli authorities want the European Union to take a similar position, which would mean Brussels could act to freeze its assets in Europe.

Reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova; Editing by Jon Boyle

Hezbollah denies involvement in Burgas attack


Hezbollah denied it was involved in a terrorist attack in Bulgaria that killed six, including five Israelis.

Two days after the Bulgarian government implicated two men with links to Hezbollah to the terrorist attack last July, deputy Hezbollah leader Naim Qassem said Thursday that Israel is making “allegations and incitements and accusations against Hezbollah” because it has not succeeded in defeating it militarily, Reuters reported.

“Israel is leading an international campaign to intimidate people and countries against Hezbollah,” Qassem reportedly told religious students in southern Beirut. “We will not submit to these pressures and we will not change our priorities. Our compass will remain directed towards Israel.”

Hezbollah and Israel fought a monthlong war in 2006.

Bulgaria's interior minister, Tsvetan Tsvetanov, told reporters on Tuesday that Hezbollah also financed the bomb attack on a tour bus full of Israelis.

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati said his government would cooperate with Bulgarian investigators, according to Reuters. The people directly behind the attack were part of a Hezbollah cell that included two operatives using passports from Australia and Canada, he said.

Israel has blamed Hezbollah and Iran for the attack, which also killed the Israeli tourists' Bulgarian bus driver. Iran has denied responsibility and accused Israel of staging the attack.

Iran says Israel will regret Syria air strike


Iran told Israel on Monday it would regret its air strike against Syria last week, without spelling out whether Iran or its ally planned any military response.

“They will regret this recent aggression,” Saeed Jalili, Secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, told a news conference in Damascus a day after holding talks there with President Bashar al-Assad.

Jalili likened Israel's attack on a military compound north-west of Damascus on Wednesday to previous conflicts including its 34-day war with Lebanon's Shi'ite militant group Hezbollah in 2006, all battles that he said Israel had lived to regret.

“Today, too, both the people and the government of Syria are serious regarding the issue. And also the Islamic community is supporting Syria,” he said.

Jalili said Iran, in its current role as head of the Non-Aligned Movement, would work on Syria's behalf on the international stage in response to the attack.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said on Sunday the attack on a Syrian arms complex showed Israel was serious about preventing the flow of heavy weapons into Lebanon, appearing to acknowledge for the first time that Israel had carried out the strike.

Diplomats, Syrian rebels and security sources say Israeli jets bombed a convoy near the Lebanese border, apparently hitting weapons destined for Hezbollah.

Reporting by Dominic Evans in Beirut and Yeganeh Torbati in Dubai; Editing by Kevin Liffey

Clinton warns Russia, Iran of Syria conflict spreading


Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Iran and Russia on Thursday to rethink their support for Syria, saying the most dire scenarios of the conflict spilling beyond its borders could come to pass.

Clinton told reporters there are signs Iran is sending more people and increasingly sophisticated weaponry to support Syrian President Bashar Assad in his 22-month battle against rebels seeking to end his family's four-decades of authoritarian rule.

Speaking on the eve of her State Department departure, Clinton also said Russia continues aid to the Syrian government, including financially, and she appeared skeptical that Moscow was easing in its opposition to Assad's departure.

Clinton declined comment on reports Israel had bombed Syria on Wednesday but she voiced fears that the conflict, in which more than 60,000 people are believed to have died, may worsen internally and spread.

“I personally have been warning for quite some time of the dangers associated with an increasingly lethal civil war and a potential proxy war,” Clinton told a small group of reporters a day before she is to be replaced by Senator John Kerry.

“Therefore, I think it's incumbent on those nations that have refused to be constructive players to reconsider their positions because the worst kind of predictions of what could happen internally and spilling over the borders of Syria are certainly within the realm of the possible now,” she added.

Diplomats, Syrian rebels and security sources said Israeli jets bombed a convoy near the Lebanese border on Wednesday, apparently hitting weapons destined for Hezbollah. Syria denied the reports, saying the target was a military research center northwest of Damascus and 8 miles from the border.

Syria warned of a possible “surprise” response to Israel over the reported attack while Hezbollah, an Iranian ally that also supports Assad, said Israel was trying to thwart Arab military power and vowed to stand by its ally.

PRAISE FOR ALKHATIB

Clinton said that the United States was worried that Iran had recently increased its support for Assad.

“It appears that they may be increasing that involvement and that is a matter of great concern to us,” she said.

“I think the numbers (of people) have increased,” she added. “There is a lot of concern that they are increasing the quality of the weapons, because Assad is using up his weaponry. So it's numbers and it's materiel.”

She made similar comments about Russia.

“We have reason to believe that the Russians continue to supply financial and military assistance in the form of equipment,” she said. “They are doing it in the recent past.”

Russia has been Assad's most important ally throughout the 22-month-old Syrian conflict, which began with peaceful street protests and evolved into an armed uprising against his rule.

Moscow has blocked three Security Council resolutions aimed at pushing him out or pressuring him to end the bloodshed. But Russia has also distanced itself from Assad by saying it is not trying to prop him up and will not offer him asylum.

Clinton appeared skeptical Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's comment this week that Assad's chances of staying in power were growing “smaller and smaller” might herald a fundamental shift in Russia's stance.

“On the Russians, Medvedev included, we have heard rhetoric before over the last now nearly two years that we thought provided an opening … unfortunately, all of that rhetoric has failed to translate into changes in Russian policy,” she said.

Clinton praised the head of Syria's main opposition coalition, Mouaz Alkhatib, for saying this week that he was ready to hold talks with Assad representatives outside Syria if authorities released tens of thousands of detainees.

“I thought he was not only courageous but smart in saying that if certain conditions are met we will begin discussing a political transition because you have to you know make it clear that there will be something other than hardened fighters when this conflict finally ends,” Clinton said. “Otherwise, it might not ever end in the foreseeable future.”

Reporting by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Lisa Shumaker

Israel worried about fate of Syria’s conventional arsenal


Syria's advanced conventional weapons would represent as much of a threat to Israel as its chemical arms, should they fall into the hands of Syrian rebel forces or Hezbollah guerrillas, Israeli sources said on Tuesday.

Such concerns suggest that Israel, which has signaled heightened readiness over the last week to react militarily if it thinks Damascus is losing control of its chemical arsenal, could also intervene over Syria's Russian-supplied missiles.

“It's clear that unconventional weaponry is a very grave matter. But when you look at the overall, relevant arsenal, Syria has new, advanced (conventional) weapons of a kind you don't find elsewhere in the Middle East,” a source briefed on Israeli defense planning told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

A former Israeli national security adviser, Uzi Arad, said in a radio interview on Monday that Syria – where President Bashar al-Assad is battling a 22-month-old armed uprising – had 1,000 tonnes of chemical agents.

Israeli officials have also voiced concern about Syria's advanced Russian-supplied weapons, including anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles.

Israel fears that should such weapons fall into the hands of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon, this could dent the Jewish state's superiority in any future confrontation.

During a 2006 war with Hezbollah, Israel had complete air dominance during countless bombing runs over southern Lebanon, though it was surprised when one of its ships off the Lebanese coast was hit by a cruise missile, killing four servicemen.

Addressing an international aerospace conference on Tuesday, Israeli air force chief Major-General Amir Eshel described Assad's military arsenal as “huge, part of it state-of-the-art, part of it unconventional”.

“Syria is the most salient example of a country in the process of disintegration, where none of us has any idea what will happen the day after,” he told a conference at the Fisher Institute for Air & Space Strategic Studies near Tel Aviv.

COVERT WARFARE

Israel and NATO countries say Syria has stocks of various chemical warfare agents at four sites. Syria is cagey about whether it has such arms but insists that, if it had, it would keep them secure and use them only to fend off foreign attack.

Syria is widely believed to have built up the arsenal to offset Israel's reputed nuclear weapons, among other reasons. Some Israeli experts fear the logic of mutual deterrence would not hold for sub-national Islamist militant groups involved in the rebellion in Syria.

The United States and other world powers have also warned of the danger posed by Syria's chemical weapons.

In his speech, Eshel did not address mounting speculation that Israel could launch preventive strikes in Syria, though other military brass has said such an option was feasible.

But Eshel said the air force was involved in what he termed “a campaign between wars”, working with Israeli intelligence agencies in often covert missions. He did not elaborate other than to blame arch-adversary Iran for the lion's share of weapons supplies to Israel's regional enemies.

Sudan, a conduit for arms to the Palestinian Gaza Strip via Egypt, blamed Israel for an attack last October on a weapons factory in Khartoum. Israel also operates regularly in the skies over Lebanon.

“This campaign is 24/7, 365 days a year,” Eshel said. “We are taking action to reduce the immediate threats, to create better conditions in which we will be able to win the wars, when they happen.”

Editing by Mark Heinrich

U.S. report: Iran spying on Israel via stations in Syria, Golan


Iran is spying on Israel via signals intelligence stations in northern Syria and the Golan Heights in cooperation with Hezbollah, according to a new report.

“Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security: A Profile,” a joint report by the U.S. Department of Defense and Congress, says the two stations have been in operation since 2006.

“The technology at the two established SIGNIT stations indicates that Iran’s capabilities are still limited, with little scope for high-level strategic intelligence gathering,” according to the report, which adds that the intelligence stations appear to concentrate on supplying information to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Two additional SIGNIT stations were expected to be in operation in northern Syria in January 2007, according to the report, but there is no information leading experts to believe they are actually operating.

Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security provides Hezbollah in Lebanon with logistical and material support, and Hezbollah assists in its intelligence operations, according to the report.

The report also said that Iran has the capacity to collect intelligence through reconnaissance aircraft, but that the capability is limited to small military operations that use only a few reconnaissance planes.

The success of the Stuxnet virus, discovered in June 2010 when it affected the operation of computers in Iran's nuclear enrichment facilities and reportedly set back Iran's nuclear program by several months, “is an indication of the weakness of Iran’s cyber development,” according to the report.

The report was issued last month by the Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress under an agreement with the U.S. Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office.

Bulgarian police identify accomplice in Burgas bombing


Bulgaria’s security services reportedly have discovered the identity of one of the perpetrators of the July bombing in Burgas that killed five Israelis and a Bulgarian.

The Bulgarian news agency Novinite reported Thursday that the discovery was the first time Bulgarian authorities had tracked down an individual suspect, as the bomber and another accomplice are known only by their aliases.

The report did not name the newly discovered accomplice. Bulgarian authorities have no suspects in custody in connection with the case.

American and Israeli intelligence officials attribute the suicide bombing at the seaside resort to a joint Hezbollah-Iran operation. According to a report in The New York Times, Israel’s intelligence apparatus intercepted telephone calls between Lebanon and Burgas months ahead of the bombing.

Hezbollah, which is considered a terrorist organization in the United States but not in the European Union, could be classified as such also in Europe if it is found to have perpetrated an attack on EU soil.

The bomber was known under the alias of Jacque Felipe Martin and he had an accomplice with the alias of Ralph Willima Rico. Neither of the suspect's true identities has been discovered, according to Novinite. Martin, Rico and the third accomplice, whose true identity has been discovered, all used fake U.S. identification documents from the state of Michigan.

The blast on the bus occurred soon after a charter plane, Air Bulgaria flight 392 from Ben-Gurion Airport, landed at Burgas Airport. The bus was the second of four carrying Israeli tourists from the airport to hotels in the city.

Iran has photos of Israeli restricted areas, lawmaker says


An Iranian lawmaker said that Iran has photos of Israeli military bases and other restricted areas.

Esmail Kowsari, chairman of the Iranian Parliament's defense committee, told the Iranian Arabic-language Al-Alam that a drone that breached Israeli airspace earlier this month transmitted photos of restricted Israeli military sites before it was shot down, Reuters reported, citing Iran's Mehr news agency.

Israeli troops shot down the unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, on Oct. 6 over the Negev Desert after it entered Israeli airspace near the Mediterranean Sea. The drone was launched from Lebanon in a cooperation between the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and the Lebanon-based terrorist group Hezbollah, the Sunday Times of London reported at the time, citing unnamed sources.

Netanyahu starts re-election bid with tough Iran talk


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu kicked off his re-election campaign on Monday, saying Israel had new unspecified “capabilities” to act against Iran's nuclear threat, an issue he said he had placed at the heart of the global debate.

In a combative speech to parliament, he urged lawmakers to back a motion to hold an election on January 22, a date approved by his cabinet after he said difficulties agreeing a 2013 budget with coalition partners had meant such a vote was necessary.

The motion was expected to be approved during a marathon session since most Israeli political parties supported it. A final vote was expected by early on Tuesday.

Opinion polls predict an easy election victory for right-wing Likud party leader Netanyahu who is likely to head a coalition that includes nationalist and religious parties.

“In less than 100 days the people of Israel shall decide who shall lead it to confront the greatest security challenges we have ever faced, and the world's toughest economic crisis in 80 years,” Netanyahu said.

Alluding to past threats to attack Iran to stop it from building a nuclear bomb, something Tehran denies, Netanyahu said Israel now had “the capabilities to act against Iran and its satellites, capabilities we didn't have in the past”.

He did not elaborate but said he had “put the danger of Iran's nuclear program at the center of the global agenda”.

“Whoever makes light of the threat of Iran's nuclear program doesn't deserve to govern Israel for even a single day,” he added, taking aim at rivals who accuse him of using the Iran issue as a scare tactic to remain popular.

SWIPES AT RIVALS

Netanyahu also said he had managed to avoid going to war during his two terms in office – three years in the late 1990's and his current term since March 2009.

“We didn't wage any unnecessary wars, or any wars at all,” he said, saying fewer Israelis had been killed in conflicts with the nation's Arab neighbors.

The comment was widely seen as a swipe at Ehud Olmert, a former prime minister who is seen as Netanyahu's potentially toughest rival if he decides to make a comeback after a recent acquittal on most corruption charges.

Olmert and his centrist Kadima deputies presided over two wars during the two years they were in office, including a month-long campaign against Lebanon's Hezbollah in 2006 and a three-week offensive against Gaza Hamas militants in 2008-2009.

Both wars killed hundreds and drew wide international condemnation of Israel which was criticized for the deaths of Lebanese and Palestinian civilians.

Shaul Mofaz, the current head of the centrist Kadima party, accused Netanyahu of “blatantly interfering in the U.S. election,” alluding to Netanyahu's open disputes with President Barack Obama on Iran and the Palestinians ahead of a November 6 presidential vote.

Turning to economics, Netanyahu touted what he called a “revolution” under his stewardship, citing highways that had been paved to link up Israel's center with peripheral towns and the creation of new jobs despite a global financial crisis.

Economics was one of the main reasons Netanyahu last week decided to move up Israel's national election by eight months from a scheduled October 2013.

He cited differences with coalition partners over austerity measures in next year's fiscal budget, as well as security challenges including the threat of a nuclear Iran.

Editing by Andrew Osborn

Israel says Iran seeks to make Lebanon ‘outpost for terror’


Iran is providing Hezbollah militants with financing, training and sophisticated weaponry in an attempt to transform Lebanon into an “outpost for terror,” Israel's U.N. ambassador said on Monday.

Iranian-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah claimed responsibility last week for the launch of an unmanned drone which Israel shot down earlier this month after it flew 25 miles into the Jewish state, saying the aircraft's parts were manufactured in Iran and assembled in Lebanon.

“Iran has provided Hezbollah with the funds, training and advanced weapons to hijack the Lebanese state and transform it into an outpost for terror,” Ambassador Ron Prosor told a U.N. Security Council debate on the situation in the Middle East.

“One does not need any further evidence that Hezbollah is a direct proxy of the Iranian regime,” he told the 15-nation council. “Hezbollah's continued provocations could have devastating consequences for the region.”

Tensions have increased in the Middle East with Israel threatening to bomb the nuclear sites of Hezbollah's patron Iran if diplomacy and sanctions fail to stop Iranian nuclear activity the West says is meant to develop a weapons capability. Tehran says it is seeking only civilian nuclear energy.

Iran has threatened in turn to strike at U.S. military bases in the Middle East and retaliate against Israel if attacked.

Indirectly taking a swipe at the U.N. peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, Hezbollah's traditional stronghold, Prosor said the group has amassed significant military capabilities in recent years.

“I know that there is no shortage of those willing to express their 'commitment to Israel's security' in these halls,” Prosor said.

“Yet displays of commitment to Israel's security have been difficult to find over the past six years as Hezbollah has turned southern Lebanon into one giant storage facility for 50,000 missiles.”

Hezbollah, a powerful Shi'ite Muslim militant and political group backed by Syria and Iran, was established with the help of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps after Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

Hezbollah last fought Israel in 2006 during a 34-day war in which 1,200 people in Lebanon, mostly civilians, and 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers, were killed.

Reporting By Louis Charbonneau; editing by Mohammad Zargham

Hezbollah says can kill tens of thousands of Israelis


The Iranian-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah said on Friday it could kill tens of thousands of Israelis by striking specific targets in Israel with what it described as precision-guided rockets.

“I tell the Israelis that you have a number of targets, not a large number … that can be hit with precision rockets … which we have,” Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah said in a broadcast speech.

He said he would not name the targets and did not say whether the rockets were newly acquired weapons.

Nasrallah said his group could strike a limited number of targets in Israel which if hit would lead to mass casualties – a possible reference to Israeli nuclear facilities, though he said he did not spell out what he meant.

Israel, the only Middle East country outside the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), has never confirmed or denied having nuclear weapons.

“Hitting these targets with a small number of rockets will turn … the lives of hundreds of thousands of Zionists to real hell, and we can talk about tens of thousands of dead,” said Nasrallah.

Nasrallah was speaking on the occasion of Jerusalem Day, marked each year on the last Friday of Ramadan in accordance with a tradition established by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the late supreme leader of Iran.

Echoes of Lebanon civil war as Syrian turmoil spreads


Tit-for-tat kidnappings by Syrian rebels and Lebanese Shi’ite gunmen have escalated tensions in Lebanon, where the specter of contagion from Syria’s conflict is alarming the fractured and war-scarred Mediterranean nation.

Despite government efforts to insulate it from turmoil in its once dominating neighbor, Lebanon has seen armed clashes in its two largest cities, and last week authorities said they uncovered a Syrian plot to destabilize the country.

The sight of masked gunmen in Beirut on Wednesday claiming the capture of 20 Syrians, and the kidnapping in broad daylight of a Turkish businessman near the airport, was another dramatic sign of Syria’s crisis spilling over into Lebanon.

While they may not herald an imminent slide towards conflict in Lebanon, the incidents highlight the weak and tenuous authority of Lebanon’s state institutions and point to future instability in the country of four million.

“This will have a negative impact on state authority, the military and the business environment in Lebanon” said Ayham Kamel of the Eurasia Group consultancy. “The likelihood of civil war right now remains low, but reaching this stage is a very alarming development”.

To the outside world, kidnapping foreigners was a defining feature of Lebanon’s civil war, and the brazen public appearance by the masked gunmen this week – unchallenged by security forces – echoed the chaos of the 1975-1990 conflict.

“This …brings us back to the days of the painful war, a page that Lebanese citizens have been trying to turn,” said Prime Minister Najib Mikati, whose policy of ‘dissociation’ from Syria’s conflict next door has come under growing strain.

SECTARIAN TENSIONS

Mikati, a Sunni Muslim, heads a government in which Shi’ite Muslim militant movement Hezbollah and its Shi’ite and Christian allies – all supporters of Assad – hold half the cabinet seats.

Hezbollah, the only Lebanese armed faction not to disarm after the civil war, is the most powerful fighting force in the country. Its opponents have repeatedly and unsuccessfully called for it to put its mighty arsenal under state control.

Those long-standing sectarian tensions have been re-ignited by the mainly Sunni Muslim revolt in Syria against Hezbollah’s ally President Bashar al-Assad, whose Alawite community is an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam. Shi’ite Iran, a rival to Sunni Arab powers like Saudi Arabia, sponsors both Hezbollah and Assad.

Most of Hezbollah’s opponents, including Mikati’s fellow Sunnis, are solidly behind the Syrian rebellion. In Sunni Muslim border areas of northern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley, arms have been smuggled to the rebels since the start of the uprising.

Tensions over Syria led to deadly street clashes three months ago in the mainly Sunni northern city of Tripoli, home also to a staunchly pro-Assad Lebanese Alawite minority.

The kidnapping of 11 Lebanese Shi’ites in northern Syria in May also triggered street protests in Beirut.

Five days ago Lebanese authorities issued an indictment against a top Syrian security official and a former Lebanese minister whom it accused of forming an ‘armed gang’ that planned to detonate bombs to incite sectarian fighting in Lebanon.

MUCH TO LOSE

Assad’s woes have already emboldened some of his opponents in Lebanon, and Sunni Muslims might seek to press home political advantages against a weakened Hezbollah if he were to fall.

But analysts say that all sides in a potential Lebanese conflict know they have much to lose from all-out confrontation, an awareness which has helped them step back from the brink during several political showdowns in recent years.

Notable among such crises was the assassination in 2005 of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and its aftermath. The still officially unsolved killing of the Sunni billionaire with close ties to Saudi Arabia saw suspicion fall on Hezbollah and Syria.

A major escalation of violence now would be likely to draw in Gulf Arab countries, strong supporters of Lebanon’s Sunnis, against Hezbollah. Israel, which fought an inconclusive war with Hezbollah in 2006, could also get sucked into such a conflict.

Faced with that prospect, Lebanon’s divided political leaders appear keen to avoid escalating friction.

“All the evidence of the last seven or eight years has been that all the parties in Lebanon will do all they can to prevent the country shifting into all-out civil war,” said Beirut-based political commentator Rami Khouri.

Still, this week’s kidnappings by a group apparently beyond the control not only of the state but also the main political leaders on its own side of the divide, serve as a warning that street violence can build a momentum of its own.

“The Lebanese state is not a powerful centralized state,” Khouri said. “You have people outside the control of the state, whether it’s Hezbollah or small groups like these family-based militias that operate in society.

“The worry is that these incidents can escalate and get out of hand. Then you end up with armed conflict in the street.”

Editing by Alastair Macdonald