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.

UNIFIL Welcomes Deployment of Additional Lebanese Soldiers in South

Beirut- UNIFIL Commander Major General Michael Beary has welcomed the deployment of additional Lebanese troops in southern Lebanon, saying it “will allow more joint patrolling and strengthen the implementation of UN Security Council resolution 1701.”

During a Town Hall meeting on Thursday with local authorities, Beary expressed gratitude to the local authorities for their unwavering support, which has contributed in maintaining stability in UNIFIL’s area of operations.

He also emphasized the importance of the strategic partnership and the joint activities between the Lebanese army and the peacekeepers, a UNIFIL statement said.

Beary also stressed the importance of working together with local leaders. “This gathering gives me the opportunity to hear your ideas and concerns as well as share my thoughts,” he added. “UNIFIL and the Lebanese people share a common goal: promoting stability and security in southern Lebanon. We can only achieve this goal together, through mutual respect, support and understanding.” 
During the meeting, the UNIFIL commander heard from dignitaries, including the Qaymaqam of Marjayoun and several mayors from the country’s southeastern municipalities, the statement said. 
Earlier in the day, Beary inaugurated a newly refurbished UN hospital complex in Marjayoun located inside the UNIFIL Sector East Headquarters and operated by UNIFIL’s Chinese medical team. The Chinese hospital facility has 30 medical and support personnel. The hospital has provided medical services to both UNIFIL personnel and the local population since 2007.
Beary hailed China’s significant contribution to global peace and security, in particular to UNIFIL and south Lebanon, the statement added.

UNIFIL boasts more than 400 Chinese peacekeepers, who carry out construction, anti-landmine and medical activities.

Aoun Pushes for a Plan that Guarantees Return of Syrian Refugees

Lebanese President Michel Aoun meets with the ambassadors of the five permanent members to the UN Security Council, and representatives of the European Union, the United Nations and the Arab League, October 16, 2017

Beirut- Lebanese President Michel Aoun met on Monday with the ambassadors of the United Nations Security Council’s permanent members, in presence of the UN, EU and Arab League ambassadors, to discuss Lebanon’s stance on the file of Syrian refugees.

Aoun sounded the alarm on the grave repercussions of the Syrian refugee crisis on the political, economic, and security levels, warning that this could affect the Lebanese workforce as the employment rate was on the rise.

The Lebanese president also urged the P5 Ambassadors to swiftly handle the refugee crisis, calling on international organizations that assist refugees “not to intimidate,” those who wish to return to Syria “for as long as their return is voluntary.”

Foreign Affairs Minister Gebran Bassil also attended the meeting.

“Lebanon’s security is as important as the Syrian refugees’ security,” Aoun stated, stressing that the country “seeks the safe return of those who have fled because of the Syrian conflict.”

Aoun handed the ambassadors letters to the Presidents of their respective countries, to the United Nations Secretary-General, and to the head of the European Union.

“Providing appropriate conditions for the safe return of Syrian refugees to their country is a must, especially to the stable areas that can be reached, or areas of low tension,” Aoun said.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s advisor for the issue of the displaced, Nadim al-Munla, said that Aoun’s proposal to the Security Council’s ambassadors was likely based on the plan already submitted by Bassil to the government, stressing that the return of refugees has become a priority for the Lebanese prime minister.

Munla noted that when Hariri returns from his official visit to Rome, he would call for a meeting of the relevant ministerial committee to discuss the return of refugees in light of the plans submitted by each of Bassil and Ministers Nohad al-Mashnouk and Moeen al-Merhebi.

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.

Tender Closed on First Round of Offshore Energy Blocks in Lebanon


Lebanese Energy Minister Cesar Abi Khalil announced on Thursday that a tender on the first round of offshore energy blocks has been ended.

“The first licensing round for oil exploration closed,” he said during a press conference

He said that two consortiums had made bids, which will now be evaluated by the Lebanese Petroleum Authority and cabinet.

It will take at least five years for revenue from any of the blocks to start flowing to the country, he explained.

Lebanon relaunched the licensing round for five offshore blocks (1, 4, 8, 9 and 10) in January after a three-year delay due to political paralysis. It extended the bid deadline in September.

The minister rejected claims of political meddling in the tender process.

Abi Khalil revealed that French, Italian and Russian companies involved in the two bids, but he refused to give further details.

A total of 52 companies qualified earlier in the year to bid in this round.

Lebanon sits on the Levant Basin in the eastern Mediterranean along with Cyprus, Egypt, Israel and Syria. A number of gas fields have been discovered there since 2009, such as the Leviathan and Tamar fields.

When the process was first launched in 2013, 46 companies qualified to take part in bidding, 12 of them as operators, including Chevron Corp, Total SA and Exxon Mobil Corp.

Hariri, Pope Discuss Syrian Crisis and Burden of Refugees

Beirut- Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri held separate talks on Friday with Pope Francis and Vatican’s Secretary of State Monsignor Pietro Parolin. Discussions focused on the situation in Lebanon and the regional crises, mainly the war in Syria.

“It was a very good meeting,” Hariri said following the talks at the Vatican.

The National News Agency reported that the Lebanese premier discussed with the pope the situation in Lebanon and the region, and the repercussions of the Syrian crisis on Lebanon, in addition to ties with the Vatican.

“The Vatican has a responsibility” regarding the burden of Syrian refugees, Hariri was quoted as saying following the talks.

“The Pope will work on this. But what is essential for me and for the displaced, is that no one is preventing any displaced from returning to Syria today. The right way for their return to their country should be found and there must be safe areas in Syria for the displaced to be convinced to return safely to their country and to these areas,” he said.

“In this way, we would have secured the return of the displaced to Syria. The talk about forcing them to return is out of the question, unnatural and inhuman,” Hariri added.

But the PM stressed that the Lebanese authorities had a role in protecting Lebanese citizens, by implementing laws that preserve their jobs.

“We heard from him that Lebanon is important to him and coexistence in Lebanon is an example for the whole region, and must be preserved,” Hariri said about the pope who promised to visit Lebanon.

“We discussed the problems in the region. His Holiness went to Egypt to confirm the importance of dialogue, especially between Muslims and Christians. He accepted to come to Lebanon, hopefully soon, and this is a positive thing,” Hariri added.

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.”

US Measures against Hezbollah Leaders Embarrass Lebanese Government

Beirut – The United States stepped up its measures against Lebanon’s Hezbollah group by offering multimillion-dollar rewards for the arrest of two of its officials.

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.

The new escalatory steps put further pressure on the Lebanese government, especially in the wake of recent warnings by Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who said: “The next war in the north will not only be the Lebanese front, but rather a united front made up of Syria and Lebanon.”

“The Lebanese army has lost its independence and has become an integral part of Hezbollah,” he added.

While no official stance was issued by Lebanon in response to the new US measures, Speaker Nabih Berri said on Wednesday that foreign threats affect all the Lebanese people, underlining the importance of preserving unity to face challenges ahead.

In remarks to Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, sources from Hezbollah said the US rewards and the Israeli threats would not affect the “resistance work against Israeli and extremist groups.”

The sources noted that the new measures were part of a political media campaign with well-known objectives, which came in parallel with the new financial sanctions imposed on the group.

Director of Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs Sami Nader said that the new steps against Hezbollah would embarrass the Lebanese government, which would soon have to give an official stance on the matter.

Nader told Asharq Al-Awsat that the most dangerous part of the US escalatory steps was its call on its European allies to stop separating between Hezbollah’s military and political wings, an approach that European countries have used so far in their relation with Lebanon and its government.

Nathan Sales, the US counterterrorism coordinator, said in a press conference that the rewards were the first offered by the United States for Hezbollah operatives in a decade.

Hamiyah has been on the department’s foreign terrorist list since 2015 and Shukr was added in 2013. The United States named Hezbollah as a foreign terrorist organization in 1997.

Nicholas Rasmussen, the head of the National Counter Terrorism Center, blamed the group for a list of attacks around the world, and said it maintains a presence in “nearly every corner of the globe.”

He added that US intelligence agencies warned that the group was seeking an ability to strike inside “the homeland.”

Future Movement: Hezbollah’s Campaign against Saudi Arabia Harms Lebanon

Hezbollah fighters put Lebanese and Hezbollah flags at Juroud Arsal, Syria-Lebanon border

Beirut- The Future Movement’s parliamentary bloc warned against the campaign launched by Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah on Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, stressing that such policy would “damage the interests of Lebanon, and distort relations with Arab brothers, especially in the Gulf.”

The bloc held its weekly meeting in Beirut on Tuesday, headed by former Prime Minister Fouad Saniora.

In a statement issued afterward, it stressed “the restoration of the full authority of the state on its soil, the serious implementation of the Constitution and the Taif Agreement, and the need to strengthen Arab-Lebanese relations for the sake of Lebanon and its people.”

The bloc underlined the necessity to maintain the rule of law and order and promote the work of state institutions.

On Hezbollah, the Future deputies said: “The bloc strongly condemns the speech made by Hezbollah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah on more than one subject, including his campaign against Saudi Arabia and Arab Gulf states.”

While it lauded the reconciliation launched at the Palestinian level to promote the rapprochement between the Fatah and Hamas movements, the bloc expressed its concern over “the spread of trends and attempts in more than one country to promote separation such as in Iraq and Catalonia in Spain.”

The Future Bloc warned that these changes “necessitate Arab States to preserve the unity of their countries in order to guarantee national stability, within the framework of a civil state in which all people have equal rights and duties”.

Israel’s Lieberman: Next War Will Take Place on 3 Fronts


Tel Aviv – Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman announced on Tuesday that the next war his country wages will most likely take place on three fronts at the same time.

He explained that the northern front will no longer be limited to a war against the “Hezbollah” group in Lebanon, but it will also encompass Syria.

“In the next war in the north of the country, Lebanon will not be the only front,” Lieberman said in a speech to soldiers.

Lebanon and Syria would constitute “one front” against his country, he explained, while making implicit threats to the Lebanese government and army.

The minister added that the Lebanese army had lost “its independence by becoming an integral part of ‘Hezbollah’.”

Lieberman evoked the possibility of a simultaneous conflict in the north and in the south with Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

“The battle will take place on the northern and southern fronts,” he said.

“There is no longer war on one front. It’s our basic assumption and it is what our military is preparing for.”

He stated however that his country was exerting great efforts to prevent a new war, but given the “new Middle East, chances of avoiding such a conflict are slim.”

“We have to prepare for any possible scenario, because the new reality presents us with new challenges. In the past, we used to speak of a Lebanese front, but this is no longer the case,” continued Lieberman.

The new northern front now includes Lebanon and Syria, he stressed.

“I hope that our enemies on the other side would think very well before making any move against Israel,” warned the minister.