Lebanon: More Should be Done in Wissam al-Hassan’s Murder Case

Beirut- Five years have passed since the assassination of the head of the Information Branch of the Internal Security Forces, Brigadier General Wissam al-Hassan, and judicial and security investigations still have no evidence on the identity of the perpetrators and those behind them.
 
No official ceremonies were held on Thursday to commemorate al-Hassan’s assassination, as some officials only laid wreaths on his tomb, amid increasing questions about the fate of the probe.
 
Despite rumors about headway in the investigation, the ongoing probe hasn’t reached a decisive conclusion, a judicial source told Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, noting that there is nothing new to inform the public about.
 
The source added that the available data required matching physical evidence in order to establish the validity of information and determine the identity of the suspects.
 
Other security sources told Asharq Al-Awsat that the past years have not helped create a favorable ground or give the investigation a strong impetus.
 
According to the sources, “the state – with all its military, security and judicial bodies – was preoccupied with pursuing terrorist networks and countering their danger.”
 
Al-Hassan was killed by a car bomb targeting his motorcade in the Beirut area of ​​Ashrafieh on October 19, 2012. His driver Ahmed Sahyoun and a number of civilians were also killed, while dozens of people were wounded.
 
Observers linked his assassination with the arrest of former minister Michel Samaha, the political adviser to the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, who was caught transporting 25 explosive devices from Damascus to Beirut and handing them over to the informant, Milad Kfoury, in order to detonate them during Ramadan Iftars in the northern region of Akkar.
 
At the time, the March 14 coalition considered the assassination of Hassan a response from the Syrian regime to Samaha’s arrest.
 
On Thursday noon, Interior Minister Nohad al-Mashnouq visited the tomb of al-Hassan in Beirut’s Martyrs Square, accompanied by Minister of State for the Displaced Moeen al-Merehbi, ISF Director General Major General Imad Osman, Head of Information Division Colonel Khaled Hamoud and senior officers from the security forces.

In response to a journalist’s question on why the criminal was still at large, the interior minister replied: “Today, I have no answer, because nothing has been established so far. The investigation is ongoing and is not over yet.”

He added that more should be done in this regard.

Lebanese Parliament Approves New Taxes to Fund Salary Hike

taxes

Beirut – The Lebanese parliament approved on Monday a series of new taxes to fund the recently announced hike in salaries of public employees.

The majority of the taxes are the same ones included in a previous tax law that was rejected by the Constitutional Council.

The new bill includes a hike in the Value Added Tax, from 10 to 11 percent. Fees have been increased on alcoholic drinks, imported cigarettes, stamps and notary public transactions. New fees have been imposed on first class flight passengers, as well as private and economy class travelers. A very low fee of $3 was imposed on travelers arriving in Lebanon by land.

Opposition lawmakers slammed the new taxes, while Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil defended them, saying that their real purpose is to decrease the public debt.

Head of the Kataeb Party MP Sami Gemayel said that officials will use the newly generated funds “to finance their electoral campaigns from the pockets of the citizens.”

“They have nothing to do with the new wage scale, which is why we are opposing it,” he continued.

He added that he will study the possibility of appealing the law before the Constitutional Council.

Kataeb bloc MP Fadi al-Haber noted to Asharq Al-Awsat that the taxes “primarily target the poor people in Lebanon,” especially in regards to raising fees on stamps and land and mobile telephone lines.

If the tax law is appealed before the Constitutional Council, then the government and parliament will be faced with a confrontation with the General Labor Union and other unions that have threatened to stage open general strikes.

Haber said: “Funding the new salary scale can only take place through an ambitious economic plan that would restore growth in the country.”

“As long as the government lacks the ability to take sovereign decisions, then it will not be able to adopt an effective and productive plan because its voice has been usurped,” he added.

“It is therefore seeking to correct this economic and financial flaw by imposing taxes on he poor,” he lamented.

Mustaqbal bloc MP Ammar Houri said that appealing the law is possible if ten lawmakers sign the request.

He remarked however that, at the moment, financing the new salary scale is only possible through taxes, denying that the new bill mostly targets the poor.

Negotiations between Jordan, Syrian Opposition to Reopen Nassib Border-Crossing

Nassib

Beirut – Negotiations between the Jordan government and Syrian opposition factions have intensified in recent days ahead of the reopening of the Nassib border-crossing with Syria.

The Jordanian government is working on renovating the crossing ahead of its official reopening in early 2018, two years after its closure.

Head of the Yarmouk Army politburo Bashar al-Zoghby said that the Jordanian authorities consulted with the Syrian factions in the south of the war-torn country over the possibility of reopening the crossing.

He told Asharq Al-Awsat: “We agreed to the possibility, but with conditions. The most important one is keeping away any regime military or security presence away from the crossing.”

He said that the factions do not object to civilian powers managing the crossing.

The Yarmouk Army controls the Nassib crossing from the Syrian side of the border.

Zoghby added that negotiations over reopening the crossing are still in their early stages.

“The only way the regime can reach the crossing is through war. It has tried the war for years and it has not made any gains from it,” he noted.

The efforts to reopen the crossing coincided with a visit paid by Syrian Defense Minister Fahd Jassem al-Freij to one of the military positions in the Quneitra province.

It also took place amid a warning by an opposition military commander in the South against the regime over amassing the military in the area.

Jordan and Syria are connected through both the Nassib and Daraa crossings.

In Quneitra, Freij said that the conflict in Syria is part of the 1973 war against Israel and its agents.

“Every victory achieved by the regime and its allies in this war is a completion of the victory made in the 1973 against the Zionist entity,” he said.

Syrian opposition factions made light of Freij’s visit, saying that it was an attempt to lift the morale of the forces deployed there.

“These forces have not accomplished any victory in the area,” said commander of the southern alliance in Quneitra Qassem Najm.

The timing of the visit coincides with the 1973 war that took place on October 6.

“During the war, Hafez al-Assad sold the Golan Heights to Israel in exchange for cementing his power in Syria,” Najm told Asharq Al-Awsat.

“This visit will not change the reality on the ground where the rebels have the upper hand,” he declared.

2 Killed in Armed Clash between ‘Hezbollah’ Supporters in Lebanon’s Sidon

Sidon

Beirut – A dispute between owners of power generators in the Lebanese southern city of Sidon escalated on Monday into an armed clash that left two people dead before the army intervened to contain the unrest.

The perpetrators were arrested as authorities in the city scrambled to contain the fallout from the clash, denying that it was politically motivated as evidence that both sides were affiliated with the “Hezbollah” armed group.

The incident occurred in the Barrad neighborhood in central Sidon when a verbal dispute erupted between a member of the Shehadeh family and Walid al-Saddiq, an owner of a power generator that provides electricity to subscribers.

The dispute turned into an armed clash after one of the Shehadeh members, a Palestinian, opened fire at Saddiq’s office, killing two people. The victims have been identified as Lebanese Ibrahim al-Janzoury and Palestinian Seraj Abdulaziz. Mohammed al-Rifai and Hassan Taleb were also wounded in the attack.

The situation escalated when relatives of the Shehadeh and Saddiq families intervened and a shootout ensued.

Relatives of the deceased also attempted to block the roads in the area to protest the death of their loved ones. Angry protesters set fire to stores and houses belonging to the Shehadeh family. No one from the family was wounded as they had fled the scene in anticipation of a retaliation.

The army soon intervene and deployed heavily in the area to end the clash and the perpetrators were arrested.

A security source denied to Asharq Al-Awsat that the attack was politically motivated, saying that the army had taken the decision to thwart any security incident and prevent its escalation.

All those involved in the shootout and the consequent acts of revenge have been detained, it added.

Judge Aouni Ramadan told Asharq Al-Awsat that the competition to gain new electricity subscribers is the only cause for the clash.

The Army Command issued a statement on Monday night, identifying the shooters as Palestinians Omar Ahmed Shehadeh, Mustapha Shehadeh and his brother Ahmed, Mahmoud Abou Rashed, Ibrahim al-Farran and Eyad Wehbe and Lebanese Abdul Hussein Saleh.

A number of mobile phones, cameras, ammunition and military gear were seized in their possession, said the statement.

Sidon municipal chief Mohammed al-Saudi hinted that the attackers are all affiliated to the same political side.

“The incident has purely financial motives,” he explained.

He later told Asharq Al-Awsat that he ruled out political motives, because the attackers are close to “Hezbollah”.

The security by-council in the South held a meeting in the Sidon Serail to tackle the clash, calling for the formation of a security committee and handing over of the wanted Lebanese suspects to the Lebanese authorities.

Former Prime Minister Fouad Saniora condemned in a statement the “reckless” Sidon clash, blaming it on groups that seek the “easy route of violence and weapons to commit crimes and create unrest.”

MP Bahia Hariri and Mufti of Sidon and nearby provinces Sheikh Salim Sousan also condemned the unrest, rejecting the “spread of arms, whose proliferation is threatening the security and stability of the city and the safety of its residents.”

Detainee Reveals ISIS Plot to Assassinate Lebanon’s Jumblat

Yassine

Beirut – A Palestinian detainee in Lebanon, held on terrorism charges, revealed that the ISIS terrorist group had plotted to assassinate Druze leader MP Walid Jumblat, as well as carry out a number of attacks in the country.

Imad Yassine told a court where he was standing trial that ISIS sought to storm with a car bomb Jumblat’s Mokhtara residence in Mount Lebanon or his home in Beirut. The leader would then be assassinated “because he is the smartest politician in Lebanon,” added the suspect.

The detainee said that creating sectarian strife and sparking civil war in Lebanon was the goal of the plot.

Yassine said that ISIS member Mohammed Kota informed him of the plot.

The group had even carried out surveillance against the target, but that was as far as the plan got before it was abandoned, he told the court.

He said that he opposed assassinating Jumblat because he had championed the Palestinian cause for decades.

Yassine, who is described as the ISIS leader in the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain el-Hilweh in southern Lebanon, was arrested by Lebanese military intelligence in October 2016.

The arrest was made during a swift operation after authorities had received information that a series of terrorist attacks were going to be carried out in the country.

The suspect said that he and other ISIS members in the refugee camp had set a number of potential targets in Lebanon. They included the country’s infrastructure, especially tourist locations, such as the central commercial district in Downtown Beirut and Casino du Liban north of the capital.

They also plotted to target the Zahrani gas station, Jiyeh power plant, the main market in the southern city of Nabatiyeh and a restaurant in the coastal city of Jounieh.

Yassine explained that his role was to simply attend the ISIS meeting in order to set the pace and make sure that the plotters were not hasty in their actions.

The plotters included Mohammed al-Chechani, one of the most prominent ISIS members, and his aide Jamal al-Moubayed and Kota.

The detainee denied that he was the ISIS leader in Ain el-Hilweh, asking: “How can I be the leader and wander around the camp without any guards. I was even arrested while I was headed alone to the mosque.”

Earlier on Monday, State Commissioner to the Military Court Judge Saqr Saqr charged Ali al-Hujairi, former municipal chief of the northeastern border town of Arsal, with belonging to an “armed terrorist group (al-Nusra Front).”

He was also charged with facilitating the infiltration of gunmen to take part in clashes against the Lebanese army in 2012, 2013 and 2014.

Hujairi was charged with kidnapping Lebanese and foreign nationals, handing them over to terrorist groups and releasing them in exchange for ransom.

Syrian Regime, Russia Stop Raids on Idlib

Residents inspect a site damaged by an airstrike in Hafsarja

Beirut– After 11 consecutive days of heavy raids, Russian and Syrian regime forces stopped their air strikes over Idlib governorate which began to enjoy some calmness since Friday-Saturday midnight.

Experts believe that the raids had stopped following several “international pressures exerted on Moscow especially after the Russian war planes destroyed medical centers.”

However, a Free Syrian Army commander considered the calm situation to be temporary because warplanes are busy with Badiya battles and trying to stop ISIS terrorists from advancing in east of Homs.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), after over 1500 raids during 11 consecutive days on Idlib, Hama and Aleppo provinces, Russian and regime raids had stopped and the areas have been witnessing calmness since after the midnight of Friday – Saturday,

The SOHR documented that the intensive raids started on September 19, 2017 killing 197 citizens at least, including 53 children and 47 women in the areas of Khan Shaykoun, al-Tamanah, Jarjnaz, and other areas in Idlib countryside, as well as al-Madiq Citadel, al-Lataminah and the northern and the north-eastern countryside of Hama.

In addition, 68 fighters of al-Sham Corps were killed during a raid that targeted their headquarters in Tal Mardikh area near Saraqeb in Idlib’s astern countryside, while hundreds of the members of Hayyaat Tahrir al-Sham and the Islamic Party of Turkestan were killed and injured during Russian and Syrian air raids on their sites, according to SOHR.

These developments occurred following the meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara two days ago. However, military and strategic expert Colonel Ahmad Rahhal believes that the meeting between the two leaders didn’t have that of an effect on the military operations. He stated that the day following the meeting, several raids occurred and killed dozens of civilians.

Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Rahhal expressed his belief that the decreased number of air raids is due to European pressures exerted at the UN after Russian warplanes destroyed most of Idlib’s hospitals and schools.

Idlib witnessed a bloody Friday after Russian and Syrian regime warplanes bombed Harem and Armanaz in western countryside, killing 36 civilians and injuring dozens others.

Free Syrian Army commander Abu Ali Abdulwahhab stated that the Russian and regime planes had left all nearby airports and headed towards ISIS’ areas. He denied links between the halt of the air raids and involvement of Turkish police saying they never entered Idlib.

He told Asharq Al-Awsat that they never entered Idlib, but the policemen are near Bab al-Hawa crossing point and are ready to enter.

Activist Haitham Hamo stated that even though the bombing has stopped, civilians are worried the raids will occur again at any minute. He informed Asharq Al-Awsat that people are moving around the city cautiously and Civil Defense members had been active since Saturday helping civilians and recovering the bodies of dead citizens from under the debris.

An escalation in the bombing of medical facilities since September 19 has forced the closure and evacuation of hospitals throughout northwestern Syria, according to the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

In a statement issued, MSF confirmed that Hama Central Hospital has been targeted during an air raid, however no medics or patients were killed in the strike.

“On September 26, the MSF-supported Hama Central/Sham hospital was hit by an air strike at around 6:30 a.m. local time, putting it out of service,” read the statement.

Hama Central/Sham hospital is not primarily supported by MSF, but the organization had been supporting it with regular monthly medical supply donations since 2014.

Lebanon: Political Disputes Might Bring Parliamentary Elections Date Closer

Beirut- Lebanon’s upcoming parliamentary elections currently constitute the biggest challenge for political forces whose majority fear the outcome of the vote in light of a new law that forecasts uncertain victories.

Amid those fears, worries re-emerged lately concerning the possibility of once again postponing the elections, scheduled for next May, amid calls from Speaker Nabih Berri to hold elections at the end of this year before the scheduled date.

Lebanon has not held parliamentary elections since 2009. Last June, Parliament ratified a new electoral draft law based on proportional representation, with Lebanon divided into 15 electoral districts.

The law also stipulated the adoption of biometric identity cards to cast ballots during the next elections instead of the identity card.

However, this week, Berri’s parliamentary Development and Liberation Bloc submitted an urgent draft law to end Parliament’s term this year and to hold early elections before the end of 2017 amid fears of any emergency extension if Lebanon’s Interior Ministry fails to complete the biometric identity cards before next May.

Sources close to Berri’s bloc told Asharq Al-Awsat on Thursday that the Speaker’s proposal is very serious, calling on Parliament to vote on it soon.

“Parliament should either approve the proposal to hold elections before the end of this year or vote against it and in such case, each party would be responsible for his decision,” the sources said.

According to the same sources, Berri’s proposal constitutes an “early warning” to any party planning to once again postpone the date of the elections.

In response to Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil who criticized Berri’s proposal saying it would deal a blow to reforms contained in the voting law, sources close to the Speaker said: “The true rhetoric repeated by some parties is neither related to reforms nor to elections, but is rather a consensual contract that aims to postpone the elections.”

Member of Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Future Movement parliamentary bloc MP Ammar Houri told Asharq Al-Awsat that the biometric identity card “is essential to guide Lebanon towards modernity because it contains all personal information for the voter.”

As for the Free Patriotic Movement, the party would not object extending the term of Parliament to another few months, allowing the introduction of some vital reforms to the electoral process.

“The Cabinet decided in its last session to link next year’s elections to the adoption of the biometric card, therefore, we have decided to proceed in this direction,” member of President Michel Aoun’s Change and Reform parliamentary bloc MP Mario Aoun told Asharq Al-Awsat.

Investigation Into ISIS’ Abduction of Lebanese Soldiers

Beirut- The case of Lebanese soldiers kidnapped and slain by ISIS has witnessed rapid developments whether on the level of an internal investigation launched by the Lebanese army leadership or the judiciary supervised by the military prosecution.

The families of the martyrs are also planning to file lawsuits against all those who stood behind the developments in the northeastern border town of Arsal in 2014 that led to the capture of their relatives and the alleged negligence in the negotiations aimed at releasing the soldiers.

The investigation is not restricted to the abduction and murder of the servicemen. It actually expands to cover the clashes of Arsal on August 2, 2014 that left dozens of Lebanese soldiers dead and wounded.

A military source told Asharq Al-Awsat that the internal investigation of the military institution aims to determine those responsible for the events and to know if the army’s operation in Arsal had a miscalculation.

“The investigation has no political motives.” The military institution wouldn’t be the competent authority to tackle the case if the probe witnesses political intervention, the source added.

Some political parties insist to hold former Prime Minister Tammam Salam responsible for the events in Arsal as well as considering ex-Army Commander Gen. Jean Qahwaji had not taken steps on the ground to free the soldiers immediately after their abduction.

Hussein Youssef, father of martyred soldier Mohammed, told Asharq Al-Awsat that now after they have overcome the shock, the families of the slain troops intend to file a lawsuit in the coming days against those who caused the Arsal events and contributed in the kidnapping of the soldiers as well as those who showed negligence in the negotiations aimed at releasing them.

Youssef, a spokesperson for the families, added: “We are not making accusations against anyone but we are going to file one lawsuit because we have one case.”

It seems that families of the martyrs will not disregard the deal that exited ISIS outside the Lebanese border area and helped transport its militants to Syria’s Deir Ezzor.

The ISIS militants left the Lebanon-Syria border region on August 28 under an evacuation deal negotiated between the extremist group and “Hezbollah” following information provided by the terrorists on the location of the troops’ remains on the outskirts of Arsal.

Supporting Lebanese Army is Main Item in Upcoming Putin-Hariri Talks

Lebanese

Beirut- The visit of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri to Moscow and his meeting with President Vladimir Putin next Monday carries several revealed titles, such as supporting the Lebanese Army to face terrorism and discuss the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon.

The visit also carries concealed political headings, which are very sensitive to Kremlin.

Putin and Hariri are expected to tackle the fate of head of the Syrian regime Bashar al-Assad in the transitional political phase in Syria.

Observers close to Hariri do not deny that the prime minister’s mission in Moscow would be difficult, as Hariri might not be capable to convince Putin to give up the Assad paper.

Head of the Beirut-based Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs, Sami Nader told Asharq Al-Awsat that the Russian president knows that Hariri represents an Arab and regional voice.

For his part, member of the Future parliamentary bloc MP Okab Sakr said that Hariri’s visit to the Russian capital plans to mainly discuss the Lebanese situation, considering that Moscow is now a main player in the Middle East and the Arab world.

“Hariri hopes that Russia plays a positive role in the region, which would also reflects positively on Russia itself,” Sakr told Asharq Al-Awsat on Monday, adding that the prime minister talks in Moscow will push in this direction.

The deputy spoke about the importance of improving relations between Beirut and Moscow.

“The Lebanese Prime Minister will have a real say in the Syrian file as Lebanon is highly affected by the Syrian crisis, and was previously occupied by the Syrian regime,” Sakr said.

Despite the difficulty to change Russia’s position vis-à-vis Assad’s presence in Syria, Sakr uncovered that “in the backstage, the Russian leadership knows that Assad has no role in the future of Syria, but the problem lies in who will replace Assad during the transitional phase.”

He said that Hariri has no illusion that he could change the position of Putin, but, at least the prime minister will show the Russian president the dangers of keeping Assad and their repercussions on the future of both Syria and Lebanon.

Damascus Looks for Safe Passage for ISIS Buses to Deir Ezzor

An ISIS fighter is seen in a bus as he departs from the Lebanon-Syria border zone in Qalamoun

Beirut- Buses carrying hundreds of ISIS militants and their families were still waiting at the Syrian regime-controlled areas along the administrative border with Homs and Deir Ezzor, awaiting a safe passage to reach the city of Boukamel near the Iraqi border.

On Wednesday, US-led Coalition warplanes pounded the roads, which the ISIS buses were expected to take from the Lebanese border to reach their targeted destination in Deir Ezzor.

Sources on Thursday announced that the regime was currently waiting for the approval of Iraq to allow the buses reach Boukamel.

However, a commander in the pro-Syrian government military alliance said the convoy had headed north towards the town of Sukhna after being halted in the desert and would try to reach Deir Ezzor province, close to the border with Iraq.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the ISIS buses, which had left the Qalamoun Jurud at the Syrian-Lebanese border on Monday night “were still stopped at the administrative border between Homs and Deir Ezzor in the Hmimeh area which is controlled by regime forces, waiting for securing a new safe passage to the areas controlled by ISIS.”

Reliable sources told the Observatory: “The convoy of buses is waiting for the approval of the Iraqi side to move through areas controlled by the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces to ISIS-controlled areas.”
Buses carrying ISIS militants started leaving the western Jurud of Qalamoun in Syria Monday towards Boukamal in the countryside of eastern Deir Ezzor near the Iraqi border as part of a ceasefire agreement that involves Hezbollah and the Syrian regime reached earlier with ISIS to end the group’s presence in the area.

While the Syrian part of the deal was still on hold Thursday, the media arm of Lebanon’s Hezbollah said the group has received the body of Iranian Revolutionary Guard member Mohsen Haji, who was recently captured and killed by ISIS.

Several Lebanese are opposed to the Hezbollah deal reached lately with ISIS as it bypassed the Lebanese Army’s victory against the terrorist group.

Lokman Slim, a political activist and co-director at UMAM Documentation & Research told Asharq Al-Awsat that the swap deal that occurred at the eastern Jurud area had created a shock among the Lebanese public opinion.