Dispute between Lebanese Interior, Foreign Ministers Contained


Beirut – It does not appear that the renewed dispute between Lebanese Interior Minister Nouhad al-Mashnouq and Foreign Minister Jebran Bassil over the country’s foreign policy will have repercussions on the ties between President Michel Aoun and the ministers of Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s cabinet.

Circles close to the ministers said that they are keen on strengthening their relationship in order to cement the foundations of the government and Aoun’s term in office.

The Mashnouq and Bassil had in the past few hours contained the repercussions of their dispute that had flared up again in wake of Lebanon’s voting in the UNESCO elections. The original dispute had erupted over Bassil’s meeting in New York last month with his Syrian counterpart Walid al-Muallem.

Bassil had stated: “Whoever does not like our foreign policy is affiliated with foreign powers.”

This prompted a response by Mashnouq, who said that he was never such a follower. The minister had previously described Lebanon’s foreign policy as “lost,” indirectly criticizing Bassil’s conduct.

The tensions between Mashnouq and Bassil had not affected their respective parties, the Mustaqbal Movement and Free Patriotic Movement (FPM).

Mustaqbal MP Oqab Saqr and FPM MP Hikmat Deeb agreed that the differences between the two ministers has not affected the parties.

Saqr told Asharq Al-Awsat: “This relationship is being handled with great care by Aoun and Hariri.”

“The foreign minister commits mistakes on several occasions, but he performs a good job on others,” he continued.

Deeb for his part said that the tit-for-tat statements between Mashnouq and Bassil do not affect the government and the current FPM alliance with Hariri.

He told Asharq Al-Awast that the dispute is part of electoral campaigning and attempts by either official to win over voters for next year’s polls.

Civilians’ Evacuation Speeds Up Liberation of Raqqa


Beirut – The global coalition against ISIS announced on Saturday brokering a deal to evacuate Raqqa from civilians, excluding the foreign members of the terrorist group, a step that would drive the Coalition-led Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces to speed up its announcement of liberating the city.

Sources said that Washington rejected that ISIS foreign-born militants be part of the deal, which stipulates the evacuation of civilians from the last pockets of Raqqa.

“The US insists that those militants either be killed or surrender,” the source said.

There are maximum 200 foreign-born militants trapped in the center of the city.

Buses had arrived on Saturday night to the village of Hawi al-Hawa, west Raqqa, to transport local members of ISIS and civilians, according to a deal reached between the SDF and ISIS, and led by the tribal Sheikhs.

Abu Mohammad al-Raqqawi, an activist in the Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, told Asharq Al-Awsat that 90 percent of the deal has been already been completed, adding that the file is now exclusively in the hands of the Coalition.

Separately, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights announced on Saturday that regime forces and their allies controlled the city of Mayadeen, the last stronghold of ISIS in eastern Syria.

Although several sources confirmed the regime’s full control of the city, head of the activist-run Euphrates Post group Ahmad Ramadan told Asharq Al-Awsat that regime forces had only the neighborhoods located at the entrance of the city.

“ISIS militants are withdrawing from Mayadeen towards the town of Bukamal, on the border with Iraq,” he said.
According to Ramadan, regime forces launched more than 200 strikes on Mayadeen and had targeted the city with 200 explosive barrels, destroying 50 percent of the city.

Meanwhile, Damascus demanded on Saturday that Turkish troops immediately leave the province of Idlib in the northwest of the country.

Quoting a source from the foreign ministry, a statement carried by the Syrian official news agency SANA said “Syria condemns in the strongest possible terms the incursion of Turkish army units into Idlib province, stressing that it constitutes a blatant aggression against the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country and a flagrant violation of international law.”

The source added that the Turkish aggression has nothing to do with what has been agreed upon by the guarantor states during the latest round of talks in Astana, emphasizing that Turkey should abide by provisions of Astana statement.

Lebanese Government Distances Itself from ‘Hezbollah’-Tel Aviv Row


Beirut — The Lebanese government is trying to stay away from the recent escalating debate between “Hezbollah” and Israel, which has highlighted a high probability of war between the two sides, despite recent accusations by Tel Aviv that the Lebanese Army has become an integral part of “Hezbollah”.

While the Cabinet, which convened on Thursday under the chairmanship of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, did not tackle the new development, nor did it issue any direct official response to the Israeli statements, President Michel Aoun stressed before his visitors that Lebanon would face mounting pressure through unity and solidarity among all the Lebanese people.

“Lebanon has been able to save itself since the Israeli aggression back in 2006, when Israel did not aim to occupy Lebanon, but to cause internal strife. The Lebanese have enough awareness and we have surpassed this stage,” he stated.

The President went on to say that Lebanon today faced a new reality and was currently under great pressure.

“We will face this pressure with our unity, solidarity, and national will, which have achieved countless victories in the past,” he noted.

However, Aoun did not comment on recent statements by Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who warned that the next “war in the north will not only be the Lebanese front, but rather a united front made up of Syria and Lebanon.”

Lieberman also said: “The Lebanese army has lost its independence and has become an integral part of “Hezbollah”.”

Earlier this week, Washington has offered up to $7 million for information leading to the detention of Talal Hamiyah, head of “Hezbollah’s” foreign operations, and up to $5 million for Fouad Shukr, a top “Hezbollah” military operative.

Although sources close to “Hezbollah” said that “the drums of war are nothing but drums of pressure and blackmail,” stressing at the same time that the possibility of an actual war should not be neglected, military experts are divided between those who assert that “psychological warfare will not turn into a military confrontation,” and those who talk about a 50 percent probability of war, as a result of continued escalation by the parties to the conflict.

Retired Brigadier General Dr. Mohammad Ramal ruled out a scenario in which Israel would launch a war soon, stressing that it was “not ready and seriously considers “Hezbollah’s” threats to target the infrastructure and the Israeli society as a whole.”

For his part, the head of the Middle East and Gulf Center for Military Analysis, Riad Kahwaji, noted that the size and frequency of Israeli maneuvers, in addition to the American-Israeli position against Iran and Hezbollah, which is taking an upward trend, “all indicate the 50 percent possibility of war, which is not a low percentage at all.”

Nasrallah Speaks of Confronting Israel as Observers Interpret his Comments as ‘Psychological War’


Beirut – “Hezbollah” Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government on Sunday of pushing the region to war in Syria, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.

He called on the Jews, who migrated to Israel, to leave as “they will have no secure place in occupied Palestine.”

Nasrallah’s stances elevated the possibilities of a new war with Israel that observers believe would not touch “Hezbollah” alone, but would start from Syria to later spread to all of Lebanon.

Addressing “Hezbollah” followers on the last day of the Shi’ite commemoration of Ashoura in Beirut’s southern suburbs, Nasrallah said: “Netanyahu, his government and the military leaderships do not have a correct assessment of where this war will lead if they ignite it, and they do not know how it would end.”

Earlier this year, Nasrallah said that a future Israeli war against Syria or Lebanon could draw thousands of fighters from countries such as Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Pakistan, and could take place inside Israel.

Political analyst Qassem Qassir, who is close to Hezbollah, placed Nasrallah’s stances in the framework of deterrent statements. He also spoke about a number of studies that were prepared by Israel that Tel Aviv could wage a war against “Hezbollah” before its militants returned from Syria.

However, Hisham Jaber, a retired army general, who heads the Middle East Center for Studies and Political Research, ruled out any war between the two sides before 2020. He explained that internal and foreign conditions are not in “Hezbollah’s” favor to start a war against Israel, while Tel Aviv cannot endure the repercussions of any new war.

Jaber said Nasrallah’s comments were part of a “psychological war.”

Meanwhile, Qassir told Asharq Al-Awsat: “Any war launched by Netanyahu would aim to win the battle and not to deter it, therefore Israel plans to fiercely hit ‘Hezbollah’.”

He added that all signs indicate that any future war would not be limited to Lebanon or be directed only against “Hezbollah”, similar to what happened in 2006, but it would start in Syria and stretch across Lebanon.

Lebanon: ‘Political Weariness’ due to Normalization with Syrian Regime


Beirut- The Lebanese government is facing a chain of challenges that are seriously threatening its stability for the first time. Major challenges are the economic file and the obvious push of 8 March alliance towards normalization with the Syrian regime.

Days after the meeting of Lebanese Foreign Minister Jebran Bassil and his Syrian counterpart Walid Muallem, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly sessions, a debate spurred between Bassil and Lebanese Interior Minister Nohad al-Mashnouq who was later on accompanied by Information Minister Melhem Riachi.

Mashnouq, after his meeting with Lebanese Mufti Sheikh Abdul Latif Daryan, stated that Bassil-Muallem meeting undermines the government solidarity and breaches the political settlement which the government was formed in its regard.

“What happened reflects a huge political transformation and not only a minor debate inside the cabinet,” he added.

Information Minister Melhem Riachi refused to communicate with the Syrian regime and considered that Bassil’s justifications on the necessity of negotiating with the two countries contradict with the ministerial statement of impartiality.

Bassil replied on Machnouq without naming him, “Who undermines Lebanon’s interest is the one who refuses the exit of refugees from his land.”

Remarkably, Prime Minister Saad Hariri didn’t announce any stance regarding the meeting, knowing that during the last period he was keen to understand the division triggered by ministers’ visits to Damascus.

March 8 alliance said that it is unlikely that the debate on normalization affects the government stability since the continuity of the government is in everyone’s favor without exceptions.

Bassil-Muallem Meeting Deepens Lebanese Division on ‘Normalization’

Beirut- Lebanese Foreign Affairs Minister Jebran Bassil’s meeting with his Syrian counterpart Walid al-Muallem in New York has deepened divisions among Lebanon’s politicians and driven sharp criticism from some officials.

Syrian Arab News Agency reported on Friday that the meeting, which had taken place on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, tackled bilateral ties, including political and economic cooperation, as well as other fields.

“Syrian-Lebanese relations are firm no matter how much some (sides) try to put obstacles in their way,” SANA quoted Muallem as saying.

He also tackled some developments in the field of combating terrorism, the Astana process and the de-escalation zones, stressing that Syria will go ahead in fighting terror.

For his part, Bassil highlighted the importance of relations and coordination between Syria and Lebanon in various fields, SANA said. He pointed out that the positive developments witnessed in the Syrian battlefield and the victories of the Syrian army over terrorism will force those taking a negative stance from Syria to reconsider their position.

Lebanese Forces head Samir Geagea was among the first to react to SANA’s report, saying “When the refugees know that their return depends on coordination with Bashar Assad’s regime, they will not return because it was Assad himself who displaced them.”

High-ranking officials in the Future parliamentary bloc also did not shy away from expressing annoyance from Bassil’s move, although they seemed to express understanding with his step out of their “keenness to their relationship with the Lebanese president and to preserve the government’ stability.”

“What we warned against – falling in the lap of the Syrian regime that is labeled with crimes and eradication of its people – began to come to fruition,” Democratic Gathering MP Akram Chehayeb said in a statement, adding that the Syrian regime is also responsible for the refugee crisis in Lebanon.

“The photo that media outlets are circulating on the meeting with the foreign minister of the criminal regime in Damascus doesn’t align with working towards national unity, which we have called for and that we are working for,” Chehayeb added.

Recent calls for the normalization of relations between Lebanon and the Assad regime on several issues have drawn criticism from various sides.

Lebanese Government Sets Elections Date, Appoints Supervisory Body

Beirut– Lebanon’s Cabinet formed Thursday an electoral body to prepare for next year’s parliamentary polls.

The supervisory body “is a first step in the process of preparation for the elections and must be followed by other accelerated measures”, official sources told Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.

The sources added that the Interior Ministry formed a specialized technical committee, which includes representatives of the ministry’s different departments, to coordinate arrangements for the upcoming elections.

Following the Cabinet session on Thursday at the presidential palace in Baabda, Information Minister Melhem Riachi said that the supervisory body would be headed by Judge Nadim Abdel-Malek and would include ten members, who are representatives of “civil society and unions.”

The elections are set to take place in May 2018 – the first time Lebanese voters are able to go to the polls since 2009.

The committee will be tasked with controlling electoral spending, receiving financial statements of electoral campaigns, managing requests by media outlets wishing to participate in paid electoral advertisements, in accordance with the provisions of the electoral law, monitoring compliance to the regulations and preparing reports to be submitted to the president, the speaker and the prime minister.

Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, the executive director of the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections (LADE), Omar Kaboul, described Cabinet’s appointment of the supervisory body as a “positive step”, pointing out that one of the experts designated by civil society associations was selected as a member of the body.

“But we still insist that this body should be fully independent, not subject to the authority of the Ministry of the Interior,” he stated.

Lebanese Army Deployed Across Eastern Border

Flags down at Presidential Palace on Friday, Lebanon

Beirut- The Lebanese officials and public laid to rest the bodies of 10 soldiers killed by ISIS two years after being captured in the eastern border town of Arsal in 2014.

At the Defense Ministry, an official state funeral was held on Friday morning in the presence of the three heads of state.

Following the funeral, the Higher Defense Council convened at the Baabda Palace and asked the Lebanese Army to “take the necessary measures to deploy its units along the eastern border, and to secure all needed military and logistic supplies the soonest possible.”

Presiding over the meeting, President Michel Aoun said an Army investigation into the circumstances that led to the abduction and killing of Lebanese soldiers by Daesh (ISIS) will pinpoint responsibility for those involved in the tragic events.

The president refused that some parties issue accusations before the Judiciary say its word.
Aoun said: “The investigation is aimed at putting an end to stances, interpretations and analyses. The investigation will pinpoint responsibilities in accordance with rules. This will also comfort the parents of martyred soldiers who have the right to know how and why their sons were killed. As I have said before, the judiciary will take its course so that no innocent person will be convicted or an accused will be cleared.”

Also attending the meeting of the Higher Defense Council, Prime Minister Saad Hariri said “the investigation requested by President Aoun does not have any retaliatory or malicious background, but rather aims at knowing the truth of what happened during that period.”

In response to the investigation requests, former Prime Minister Tamam Salam supported on Friday President Aoun in highlighting the need for “clarifying all the facts in the soldier martyrs’ case by launching a thorough investigation, and lifting confidentiality off the cabinet’s minutes of meeting, so that the fabrications of today do not become the facts of yesterday.”

Salam said the ambiguity which the President has made reference to in his speech is true in describing the positions and roles of the political forces, which have disrupted people’s lives for nearly three years.

As Lebanon mourned its 10 soldiers, the Lebanese Army was surrounding since Thursday evening, the private building of Mustafa al-Hujairi, known as “Abu Takiyyeh.”

Lebanon’s National News Agency reported on Friday that Hujairi might be hiding on the second floor of the building inside the Mosque.

Syrian Democratic Forces Advance towards Heart of Raqqa


Beirut– Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is now in control of 60 percent of ISIS stronghold Raqqa city, northeast Syria, after it advanced further inside the city, whereas SDF spokesperson Mustafa Bali stated that soon the battle will include the center of the city.

Bali stated that after liberating al-Rashid neighborhood, SDF will advance towards the center of Raqqa. He confirmed that SDF soon will be in control of 70 percent of the whole town.

Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, the spokesperson denied reports that liberation is slowing down. He reiterated that the operations are going according to plan to avoid any civilian casualties given their large number inside the city. He also added that ISIS is using civilians as human shields which makes it difficult for the forces to advance.

Bali said that SDF special forces are also evacuating civilians.

Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported that since the launch of Raqqa battles on June 06, SDF managed to regain control of about 60 percent of Raqqa, which is estimated to be 17.6 square kilometers of the area of the city.

SOHR stated that ISIS’s control is about 39.9 percent over the area of the city, estimated at 11.7 square kilometers.

The observatory pointed out that SDF attempts through its ongoing battles to achieve an advancement in the city after controlling the whole neighborhoods of al-Sabahiya, al-Romania, Heteen, Qadisiyah, Yarmouk and al-Karim in the west of the city.

In addition, SDF completely controlled the neighborhoods of al-Mashlab, al-Batani, al-Sena’a in the east of the city, while they controlled the whole neighborhood of Hisham bin Abdul Malik and Nazlet Shehada in the southern part of the city. The forces are also in control of wide areas of the Old city, and parts of the neighborhoods of al-Rawda, al-Rumeila, Hawd al-Furat and Idekhar Housing, and northern parts of al-Daraia neighborhood.

The forces also liberated the shrines of Ammar Ibn Yasser and Owais al-Qurani.

SDF’s advancement coincided with intensified and violent raids of coalition air force. The continuous bombardment, according to SOHR, killed at least 789 civilians including, 200 children and 123 women.

Commanding general of Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend said on Tuesday that he received several reports stating the death of dozens of civilians in Raqqa following the coalition operations.

During a joint press conference with US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and special presidential envoy for the global coalition to defeat ISIS Brett McGurk in Baghdad, Townsend told the reporters he is skeptical about the numbers, adding at the same time that it is not surprising to see increased casualties as the operations proceed.

“I have seen the reports of increased civilian casualties, and it is probably logical to assume that there have been some increases in civilian casualties because our operations have increased in intensity there,” Townsend told reporters, adding: “I would ask someone to show me hard information that says that civilian casualties have increased in Raqqa to some significant degree.”

In related news, UN condemned the reported US-led Coalition’s airstrike on the Syrian city of Raqqa that may have killed dozens of civilians.

UN Secretary-General spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said that unconfirmed reports indicate that over 30 people were reportedly killed in al-Sakhani neighborhood while 8 internally displaced people from the same family were killed in a separate attack in another part of the city.

“These attacks, if confirmed, are shocking reminder that civilians continue to bear the brunt conflict of many parts of Syria,” reported Dujarric during the daily noon briefing.

UN Sec-Gen spokesperson reiterated that up to 25 thousand people remain trapped in the city.

Lebanon: 20 Square Kms Separate Army from Defeating ISIS


Beirut – The Lebanese army announced on Tuesday that its forces have captured most of the 120 square kms held by ISIS on the eastern borders of the country, only four days after launching their battle against the terrorist militants.

“We have captured around another 20 square km, so we have about another 20 to go,” General Ali Qanso said Tuesday during a press conference held at the Defense Ministry.

On Tuesday, the army announced it was launching the third stage of their “Fajr al-Jurud” operation against ISIS, after focusing their efforts Monday on removing mines and booby traps from the roads, so that armored vehicles may advance.

One soldier was killed on Tuesday and four others were injured while dismantling explosives left behind by the extremists.

Qanso said that four Lebanese soldiers were killed since the army launched its operation against ISIS on Saturday.

He stated that all the terrorists’ posts have been demolished and other militants have fled the area.

“Nine posts have been destroyed, and weapons, munitions and explosives have been seized,” he added.

“Our units are getting ready to carry on the operation, while taking into consideration international humanitarian law,” Qanso stressed.

Meanwhile, the Syrian army and “Hezbollah” continued advancing from the Syrian side of Qalamoun, announcing the capture of two strategic hills and seizing a quantity of weapons.

Retired Army General Mohammed Rammal told Asahrq Al-Awsat that the third phase of the military operation against ISIS was decisive.

“When the range of the battle lessens, the effect of the heavy weapons becomes limited, and therefore it would be essential to rely on artillery shelling to paralyze the militants’ power of resistance,” he explained.

For his part, Riyad Qahwaji, CEO of the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA), told Asharq Al-Awsat that ISIS militants would continue fighting till death after it became difficult for them to retreat.

He predicted that the operation against ISIS launched from the Lebanese side would be complete before the end of this week.