Hezbollah's Beirut heartland hit in Syrian war spillover

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Updated 03 June 2013
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Hezbollah's Beirut heartland hit in Syrian war spillover

BEIRUT: Two rockets hit Hezbollah strongholds in Beirut on Sunday, tearing through an apartment and peppering cars with shrapnel, a day after the Lebanese group’s leader pledged to lift President Bashar Assad to victory in Syria’s civil war.
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah made it clear there is no turning back. In a televised speech Saturday, he said Hezbollah will keep fighting alongside Assad’s forces until victory, regardless of the costs.
In Manama, Bahrain's foreign minister labelled Nasrallah a “terrorist” who must be stopped.
“Terrorist Nasrallah has declared war on his nation,” said Sheikh Khaled Al-Khalifa on his Twitter account. “Stopping him and rescuing Lebanon from his grip is a national and religious duty for all of us,” he said.
The rockets struck early Sunday in south Beirut, an unusual type of attack. In occasional sectarian flare-ups since the end of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war in 1990, rival groups have mostly fought in the streets.
One rocket hit a car dealership in the Mar Mikhael district, wounding four Syrian workers, badly damaging two cars, and spraying others with shrapnel. Part of the rocket’s main body was embedded in the ground, where a Lebanese soldier measured its diameter.
The second rocket tore through a second-floor apartment in the Chiyah district, about two kilometers (one mile) away. It damaged a living room, but no one was hurt.
Rocket launchers were later found in the woods in a predominantly Christian and Druse area southeast of Beirut, security officials said.
There was no claim of responsibility, but the attack was widely portrayed as retaliation for Nasrallah’s defiant speech and Hezbollah’s participation in a regime offensive in the past week on the rebel-held Syrian town of Qusair, near Lebanon. The regime has pushed back the rebels in Qusair, but has so far failed to dislodge them.

Backlash
The strikes illustrated the potential backlash against Hezbollah at home for linking its fate to the survival of the Assad regime. It’s a gambit that also threatens to pull fragile Lebanon deeper into Syria’s bloody conflict.
For Hezbollah, it may well be an existential battle. If Assad falls, Hezbollah’s supply line of Iranian weapons through Syrian territory would dry up and it could become increasingly isolated in the region.
At the same time, Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim group, is raising the sectarian stakes in Lebanon by declaring war on Syria’s rebels, most of them Sunni Muslims.
Lebanon and Syria share the same uneasy mix of Sunnis, Shiites, Christians and Alawites, or followers of an offshoot of Shiite Islam. In trying to defeat the rebels, Assad relies on support from minority Shiites, Christians and his fellow Alawites.
On Beirut’s beach promenade, opinions about Hezbollah’s new strategy seemed to fall along religious lines.
Mahmoud Masoud, a Sunni, said he fears Lebanon will become more unstable. “I don’t want to see everything I’ve worked for and my country fall apart of because of a certain group’s interests,” he said of Hezbollah.
Tamam Alameh, a Shiite, sided with Hezbollah. “The Syrians helped Lebanon a lot. We should help them and rid them of the conflict in their country,” he said.
In an amateur video posted online a few days ago, a rebel commander threatened to hit Hezbollah targets in south Beirut in retaliation for the militia’s part in the fight for Qusair.
Some said the rockets are just one sign that Lebanon is becoming a battleground.
“Nasrallah declared that he is part of the Syrian civil war,” said Nadim Koteich, a TV talk show host and frequent Hezbollah critic. “He did not tell the Lebanese people why he thinks this civil war will not come to Lebanon.”
In the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, Sunni opponents and Alawite supporters of the Assad regime have repeatedly fought with mortar shells, machine guns and grenades since the start of the Syria conflict.
The latest round in the past week, apparently sparked by the Qusair offensive, was the longest and deadliest so far, with more than two dozen killed and more than 200 hurt.
Lebanese Sunnis have also entered the Syria battle, joining rebel units, though in a less-organized way than Hezbollah.
Hezbollah remains the most powerful group in Lebanon, backed by a military wing armed with tens of thousands of Iranian missiles.
Despite the risk of a backlash over the involvement in Syria, Hezbollah appears to be banking on continued support from Lebanon’s Shiites, for whom it provides an extensive social support system.
Sheikh Nabil Kaouk, Hezbollah’s commander in south Lebanon, signaled a tough line Sunday. “If the rockets were meant to terrorize us and pressure us into changing our position (on Syria), they have failed to do that,” he told a Hezbollah function.

'Terrorist Nasrallah must be stopped'
The Arab world’s Sunni leaders were predictably harsh on Nasrallah.
In Bahrain, Foreign Minister Sheik Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa described the Hezbollah chief as a “terrorist” and said it was Lebanon’s “national and religious duty” to remove him from his influential position, according to the official Bahrain News Agency.
In Cairo, Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby condemned Sunday’s rocket attack but also urged Hezbollah to stop interfering in the Syrian civil war.
It is not known how many men Hezbollah has sent to Syria, but the militia’s trained fighters fill a dire need for Assad’s army.
Regime troops have been stretched thin, both because of defections at the start of the conflict and because only the most politically loyal have been sent into battle.
It is unclear how Hezbollah’s new strategy will play out, said Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group think tank.
“They do see this as something that can redefine the rules of the game region-wide, and they are mustering all the strength they have to win this,” he said of Hezbollah. “But it is doubtful strength alone can achieve this, as the regime itself has shown.”
The Assad government, meanwhile, confirmed Sunday that it has agreed in principle to attend UN-sponsored talks with opposition representatives in Geneva next month on ending the civil war.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Moallem said during a visit to Iraq that such talks present a “good opportunity for a political solution for the crisis in Syria.” He did not say under what terms Assad would dispatch representatives.
The date, agenda and list of participants for the conference remain unclear, and wide gaps persist about its objectives.
Syrian opposition leaders have said they are willing to attend the Geneva talks, but that Assad’s departure from power must top the agenda. Assad said this month that his future won’t be determined by international talks and that he will only step down after elections are held.
Al-Moallem’s statement puts more pressure on Syria’s fractured political opposition to signal acceptance as well. The main bloc, the Syrian National Coalition, met in Istanbul for a fourth day Sunday to come up with a unified position on the proposed peace talks, elect new leaders and expand membership.
Louay Safi, a senior member of the coalition, said participants were bogged down in talks about the expansion and won’t be able to issue a statement on the Geneva talks until membership issues are settled.
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Associated Press writers Zeina Karam and Yasmine Saker in Beirut, Brian Murphy in Dubai and Aya Batrawy in Cairo contributed reporting.


Syrian government declares capital fully under its control, Daesh ousted

Updated 44 sec ago
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Syrian government declares capital fully under its control, Daesh ousted

BEIRUT: Syria’s military on Monday captured an enclave in southern Damascus from Daesh militants following a ruinous monthlong battle, bringing the entire capital and its far-flung suburbs under full government control for the first time since the civil war began in 2011.
The gains freed President Bashar Assad’s forces to move with allied militiamen on remaining rebel-held territory in the south near the border with Israel, as Syria’s chief ally Iran comes under growing pressure from the Trump administration to withdraw its troops from the country.
Iranian-backed militias, including the Lebanese group Hezbollah, have been instrumental in helping Assad’s over-stretched forces recapture huge areas around Damascus and in the country’s center and north, building a military presence that has alarmed Israel and its US ally, which is now looking to constrain Iran’s activities.
Iranian officials have vowed to stay on in Syria for as long as needed, setting the stage for a potential confrontation as Washington seeks to tighten the screws on Tehran following the US withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal brokered with Iran under President Barack Obama and world powers.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatened Iran with the “strongest sanctions in history” if Tehran doesn’t change course. In his first major foreign policy speech since taking the post as the top US diplomat, he issued a list of demands that he said should be included in any new nuclear treaty with Iran, including that it “withdraw all forces” from Syria, halt support for Hezbollah and stop threatening Israel.
Iran and Russia have joined forces in Syria, providing crucial military support to Assad’s forces and giving them the upper hand in the civil war.
Russian President Vladimir Putin told Assad at a meeting last week that a political settlement in Syria should encourage foreign countries to withdraw their troops from Syria. Putin’s envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentyev, said Putin was referring to Iranian forces, among others.
Iran says it is in Syria at the behest of the Assad government and says it is fighting “terrorism” in the form of extremists, including Daesh and Al-Qaeda.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi told reporters that no one can force Tehran to do anything it doesn’t want to do.
“Our presence in Syria has been based on a request by the Syrian government and Iran will continue its support as long as the Syrian government wants,” he said, speaking shortly before Pompeo made his remarks.
The recapture of Daesh-held pockets in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk and the nearby Hajjar Al-Aswad district in southern Damascus came after a massive bombing campaign that has all but decimated what was left of the residential area on the edge of the capital, once home to about 200,000 Palestinian refugees.
The camp has been deserted by most of its inhabitants following years of siege, and the few remaining residents fled to nearby areas in the last days of the bombardment.
The last push on the Yarmouk camp came after a group of civilians was evacuated overnight. State TV showed images of troops moving in, waving the Syrian flag and flashing victory signs atop wrecked buildings in the destroyed neighborhood. Some fired in the air in celebration.
The move boosts morale and security in Assad’s seat of power, putting it out of range of insurgents’ mortar fire and shells for the first time in nearly seven years.
With Iran’s help, Assad’s forces have been making steady gains since 2015, when Russian launched an air campaign on behalf of his forces. In December 2016, government forces captured rebel-held eastern neighborhoods of the northern city of Aleppo, in Assad’s biggest victory since the conflict began.
With a mix of military pressure and surrender deals brokered by Russia, thousands of opposition fighters capitulated and were evacuated in March and April from Damascus suburbs known as eastern Ghouta after a crushing government offensive.
Syrian troops and their allies are expected to turn their attention to opposition-held parts of southern Syria, including Daraa province, in a push that could bring allied Iranian forces even closer to the increasingly tense frontier with Israel. Idlib, in the north, remains a major rebel bastion, but government forces are expected to leave that confrontation to a later stage.
Israel has warned Iran and its proxies to stay away from the border and has carried out a series of airstrikes on Syrian air bases where it believes Iranian troops maintain a presence. Earlier this month, it launched a blistering bombardment of Iranian positions in Syria after an alleged Iranian rocket barrage toward its positions on the annexed Golan Heights.
Gen. Ali Mayhoub, a Syrian army spokesman, declared Damascus and its surroundings “completely secure” on Monday.
A war monitoring group said about 1,600 people, including hundreds of Daesh gunmen, left the area Saturday and Sunday, heading toward the desert in the east of the country following a deal with the government. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the month of fighting left scores of dead on both sides.
Syrian TV earlier quoted an unidentified Syrian military official as saying the two-day truce had been in place to evacuate women, children and the elderly Sunday night from Hajjar Al-Aswad. Syrian state media denied a deal was reached to evacuate the militants.
“The Daesh terrorist organization was wiped out in Hajjar Al-Aswad,” an unidentified Syrian soldier told state TV. “We will keep marching until we liberate all parts of Syria.”