Got to host my own VICE News documentary, filmed in Lebanon at the end of last summer’s harvest.
Got to host my own VICE News documentary, filmed in Lebanon at the end of last summer’s harvest.
Here is the 2nd documentary I filmed with VICE in Lebanon with my colleagues Rami Aysha, Phil Caller and Aris Roussinos following up on Lebanon’s illegal arms trade at the heart of its sectarian issues.
I began writing this on January the 21st in response to yet another car bomb attack on South Beirut. I am continuously updating the timeline below as the situation in Lebanon continues to deteriorate. I hope that bringing together a list of recent events, starting roughly around the time Wissam al Hassan was assassinated and triggered by the Syrian Revolution, a better picture can be gained of the timeline of escalation for Lebanon’s own civil conflict.
Lebanon: A Timeline of Escalation
04/03/14 - Five missiles launched from Syrian territory targeted the Beqaa town of Arsal on Tuesday evening without causing any casualties.
04/03/14 - Three missiles landed in the Shiite-populated northern Beqaa town of Labweh on Tuesday without causing any casualties. ISIS claim responsibility.
03/03/14 – A hand grenade attack in Ain al-Helwe Palestinian refugee camp injures three.
03/03/14 - Syrian regime warplanes fired seven missiles at the outskirts of the Beqaa town of Arsal.
03/03/14 - Five rockets launched from Syria hit a Hezbollah-dominated area of eastern Lebanon on Monday, causing no casualties.
01/03/14 – Syrian rocket lands near Nabi Sheet
28/02/14 - Rocket fire from Syria hit the eastern Lebanese border town of Brital, slightly wounding a little girl, shortly after Syrian warplanes struck the outskirts of Arsal. Jabhat Al Nusra claims responsibility.
28/02/14 – Judge issues indictments in absentia for Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, Fadel Shaker and over 50 others and requests the death penalty in all cases.
26/02/14 – Lebanese army arrest Jabhat Al-Nusra commander Nidal Souiedan in Masharee al-Qaa.
26/02/14 – 2 Alawites shot and injured in Tripoli
26/02/14 – Special Tribunal for Lebanon adjourned till Mid-May.
25/02/14 – Pro Syrian revolution singer Marwan Dimachkie and writer of the song “Dig Your Grave in Yabrud” found shot dead in his car near Dbaye.
24/02/14 – Israel strikes Hezbollah targets in the Beqaa valley’s Al-Nabi Sheet near the Syrian border. According to the Daily Star 4 members of Hezbollah were killed during he assault. Hassan Nasrallah vows retaliation.
24/02/14 – Judge issues arrest warrant for Ali Eid, 48 hour ADP moratorium passes.
22/02/14 – Suicide bomb blast targets LAF checkpoint in Hermel killing 3 soldiers. Jabhat al Nusra claim responsibility.
20/02/14 – ADP official Abdel-Rahman Diab, (father of Aug 23 suspect Youssef Diab) assassinated whilst driving his Chevy along al-Mina highway by motorcycle assailants. Clashes continue in Tripoli with the ADP responding to the attack leaving 2 dead. ADP issue 48 hour ultimatum stating that “Tripoli will bear the consequences” if the responsible parties are not apprehended.
19/02/14 – Tripoli clashes resume, 2 injured.
19/02/14 – Twin Suicide Bomb blasts in Bir al Hassan kill 11 and wound 80 Abdullah Azzam Brigades claim responsibility. An Ain al-Helwe man is said to be the bomber, further giving credence to the idea that Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir is returning to power in Ain al-Helwe.
15/02/14 – Tamam Salam forms new government after 10 months, split between March 14th and March 8th alliances.
03/02/14 – Suicide Bomb blast kills 2 in Choueifat
01/02/14 – Suicide bomb blast kills 2 in Hermel
21/01/14 – Suicide bomb attack in Haret Hreik, Dahye, Southern Beirut. So far 4 dead, 35 wounded.
21/01/14 – Tripoli Death toll up to 6
20/01/14 – Tripoli Death toll up to 4 (including a 2 year old child)
19/01/14 – Tripoli Clashes resume, 1 dead, 20 wounded
17/01/14 – Syrian air strike in Lebanon’s pro-opposition Arsal kills 7. Heavy clashes reported in border towns.
16/01/14 – Car bomb in Hezbollah controlled Hermel, North Lebanon kills 4 and leaves 30 wounded. Jabhat al Nusra claim responsibility.
13/01/14 – Proceedings for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon begins, prosecuting 5 Hezbollah members in absentia for their role in the assassination of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005.
04/01/14 – Leader of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, charged with the Iranian embassy blasts dies in police custody.
02/01/14 – Car bomb detonates in Haret Hreik, Dahye, Southern Beirut. 5 dead, 60 wounded.
27/12/13 – Mohammed Chatah, an MP from Tripoli, a political moderate and Hezbollah opponent is assassinated in a car bomb in Central Beirut killing 4 others and wounding 50.
23/12/13 – Hezbollah fighters ambush and kill 32 Jabhat al Nusra militants in Wadi al-Jamala, East Lebanon.
17/12/13 – A car bomb is intercepted and detonated near a Hezbollah position in Labwe in the Bekaa, casualties reported.
04/12/13 – Senior Hezbollah commander Hassan al-Laqees assassinated outside his home in Beirut.
02/12/13 – Lebanese villagers attack Syrian Refugee camp, set it on fire.
01/12/13 – Tripoli death toll reaches 13
29/11/13 – Clashes renew in Tripoli
19/11/13 – 2 car bombs detonated outside Iranian embassy, 23 dead, 146 injured. Local Islamist group Abdullah Azzam Brigades claim responsibility.
23/07/13 – 47 killed and more than 400 wounded in two huge bomb attacks in Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli on the Al-Tawa and Al-Salam Mosques. Arab Democratic Party implicated – Youssef Diab arrested in October in connection with the attacks. Youssef Diab reportedly confessed to driving a rigged car to Al-Salam Mosque and detonating it while another member of the Alawite ADP, Ahmad Merhi, allegedly drove the other car and detonated it at Al-Taqwa mosque.
15/07/13 – 14 killed and hundreds wounded by a car bomb in Rweiss, a Shi’ite district of Southern Beirut.
23/06/13 – 41 killed (16 Soldiers and 25 militants) in clashes in the southern city of Sidon between supporters of hardline cleric Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir and the Lebanese Armed Forces supported by members of Hezbollah. Fadel Shaker and Assir escape the compound before it is destroyed. Later it emerges that they have set up a new base in Lebanon in Ain al-Helwe Palestinian refugee camp.
09/06/13 – 15 killed in a car bomb in Bir al Abed, a Shi’ite district of Southern Beirut.
02/12/12 – 15-20 Sunni fighters from Tripoli killed in an ambush in the Syrian border town of Tal Khalakh further increasing violence in Tripoli. By the end of 2012 over 80 people died as a result of the clashes in Lebanon’s second city.
19/10/12 – ISF chief and Hariri aide Wissam al-Hassan assassinated in a car bomb in Achrafieh that also kills 7 others. The arrest of Michel Samaha is seen as a motive for his assassination.
24/08/12 – Sunni cleric Sheikh Khaled al Baradei is killed by sniper fire in Tripoli, clashes resume.
9/08/12 – MP and Minister for Information and Tourism Michel Samaha arrested for colluding with Syrian Security Chief Ali Mamlouk to transport explosive devices into Lebanon to be used on internal targets.
Here is my most recent piece for VICE catching up with Eliot Higgins AKA Brown Moses:
A bomb exploding in Darayya, Syria
The Syrian civil war is now in its third year, and the country’s citizens continue to suffer. The warring sides are stuck in a stalemate, millions of Syrians are now refugees, and, once the death toll reached 150,000, the United Nations stopped counting casualty figures. The West’s attempt at a peace deal was a total shambles, and even if there was an end in sight the country’s infrastructure is so badly damaged that it would take decades to repair. Essentially, everything is 100-percent fucked.
To make matters worse, the Syrian regime has changed its tactics, now using starvation as a weapon of war and increasingly dropping “barrel bombs” in an attempt to cripple the opposition. Unfortunately, these bombs aren’t exactly accurate, and the blasts have killed countless civilians, prompting John Kerry to label their use as the “latest barbaric act of the Syrian regime.”
With dozens of fatalities attributed to these bombs on a daily basis, the Syrian Air Force seems to have found itself a successful and low-cost tool for causing widespread destruction in opposition-controlled areas. I caught up with munitions expert Eliot Higgins to talk about the latest in cheapskate warfare.
Footage of an unexploded barrel bomb
VICE: Last time we spoke, the UN was still debating the Syrian chemical weapons debacle. Can you update me on what’s happened since then?
Eliot Higgins: The Syrian chemical weapons program is being dismantled, with the equipment and munitions already being destroyed. All that remains is the chemicals, a mix of mustard gas and precursors to various chemical agents, including sarin. The process is going slowly, with only a small percentage destroyed so far.
So the Syrians haven’t been keeping to their promised schedule? Are they cooperating?
Currently they’re behind schedule, and it appears that transporting the chemicals has proved to be more of a challenge than was expected by many people. Whether or not the government is cooperating is questionable, but there are certainly plenty of reasons on the ground that could explain the delay.
John Kerry recently came out in condemnation of the regime’s use of barrel bombs. Can you tell me more about those?
The term “barrel bomb” has been used as a bit of a misnomer in the media and by activists. In my experience, activists have used the term to refer to both conventional bombs dropped by aircrafts and DIY bombs, pushed out the back of transport helicopters. Recently we’ve seen a big increase in the use of DIY barrel bombs, in particular in Darayya, Damascus.
How are they designed?
When barrel bombs were first identified back in August of 2012, they really didn’t have a consistent design beyond being barrel-shaped objects—trash cans, large pipes, etc.—filled with explosives and scraps of metal. They were detonated using a wick fuse, like you’d see on a stick of dynamite, which was lit in the helicopter before it was pushed out the back. The problem with this was that it had a tendency to detonate prematurely, or too late, so I’d come across videos of them exploding mid-air, or smashed to pieces on the ground.
Recently we’ve seen a new type of DIY barrel bomb, which is much larger than the type used previously. This type is about six feet long, and three feet wide, has fins welded to the back, and an improvised impact fuse. The fins ensure the barrel bomb lands on the fuse, making the bomb far more reliable, and its increased size makes it extremely powerful.
How powerful are we talking?
Enough to severely damage a small apartment block, for example.
How accurately can a barrel bomb hit a target from the sky?
Not very. They’re dropped from very high up, so it’s not like you can target specific buildings.
Barrel bombs being dropped over civilian homes
So it would be fair to say these bombs are being dropped indiscriminately over civilian populations?
I would say so. It’s not like you can hit a specific target with any accuracy. But, of course, it really comes down to where they’re being used.
Where have they been used most?
At the moment it seems that dozens are being dropped on Darayya, Damascus, every day. It appears they load the helicopters at the nearby Mezzeh air base and are dropping them in pairs.
Given everything you’ve said, would their use in this manner constitute a war crime under the Geneva Convention?
Potentially, yes—although I think a lawyer would be better equipped to answer that question.
How has the war in Syria in general progressed since we last spoke?
The Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) has now begun to fight with other opposition groups, which is a major development. It’s unclear where that will lead, but it has obviously taken pressure off the Syrian government in some areas. Broadly, I would say the conflict is in a stalemate, with both sides making small progress in various parts of the country. But there’s still no end in sight.
What’s going on with the opposition right now?
The Islamic Front is doing pretty well. They were formed in November of 2013 and brought together a lot of Islamist groups. There are many different armed groups in Syria, however, and they don’t always do a great job of holding together.
Is there anything more in particular that you can tell me about the barrel bombs?
I’ve been tracking the use of DIY barrel bombs in Syria since they first appeared in August of 2012. It’s really only recently that we’ve seen this new type being used, and they are really hammering Darayya with them in the last month or so; there are probably dozens being dropped each day. The problem with tracking their use is that, as I mentioned before, activists tend to use the term “barrel bomb” to describe conventional bombs as well, so reports of injuries and deaths due to barrel bombs aren’t very useful for collecting data.
Why do you think the regime started deploying them in the first place?
There are various theories, but I suspect it’s to make the most out of their transport helicopter fleet, which would otherwise just be sitting around doing nothing. Their transport helicopter fleet outnumbers their attack helicopter fleet by quite a bit, so it makes the most sense to me.
Here is an article I published back in December for VICE about the fate of my good friend and colleague Rami Aysha, as soon as there is an update on the case I will update this blog entry.
Rami, pictured middle right
Rami Aysha was investigating Hezbollah’s curious practice of selling arms to the Syrian rebels – despite sending fighters to aid the side of Assad – when he was kidnapped at gunpoint. After being held, beaten and interrogated by Hezbollah, he was handed over to the Lebanese authorities, who released him on bail on trumped up charges of arms smuggling. Rami was tried in absentia as he was out of the country at the time of sentencing. He was also sentenced by a military court, despite being a civilian. So when the judge threw out his defence that he was a journalist investigating a story, he didn’t feel that justice had been served all that well.
Neither did Reporters Without Borders, who have called for the withdrawal of all proceedings against Aysha and have described his arrest as “unacceptable” and stated that “it is crucial that the Lebanese judicial authorities distinguish between journalistic investigation and illicit trafficking”. Lest you doubt his journalistic credentials, Aysha runs TIME Magazine‘s Lebanese bureau and has worked with many major foreign news organisations throughout the Middle East, including VICE.
Rami returned to Beirut yesterday. He went to court and his sentence was reduced from six months to two weeks. The fact that he was already locked up for over two weeks means that he should be released straight away, sources told Lebanon’s Daily Star newspaper. He is now taking his case to the supreme court in order to be declared innocent. We caught up with him for a chat.
Rami, chilling out
VICE: Hey Rami, can you tell us how this whole situation started?
Rami: On the 30th of August I was doing a report about arms dealing and arms trafficking in Lebanon when I was kidnapped by Hezbollah and tortured for three hours. The torture continued after I was handed to Lebanese intelligence, who kept me without water, food and sleep for three days. A week after my arrest I saw the military judge who issued an arrest warrant against me and I stayed in prison for one month. After that, I was released on bail and since then I have been attending the hearings.
What did you find out that was so important that Hezbollah felt it necessary to kidnap you?
Well, I discovered that due to the corruption of Hezbollah and the overloading of their their warehouses with weapons, they are selling them to the Syrian opposition. They had no other option to stop such a report because I was so close to providing evidence to the whole world that Hezbollah is corrupt and they are sending their poison to destroy the whole region and instigate the fighting in Syria.
So Hezbollah are fighting with Assad but arming the rebels. Why do you think they are doing this?
As I said before, due to the huge stocks of weapons in their warehouses some of their commanders are selling weapons to make money out of it. It is purely a business thing. I wanted to use my report to show that Hezbollah is not part of the resistance any more, it is a militia causing a lot of chaos in the region. Add to this most of the weapons sold in Lebanon are actually coming from these warehouses, which I was so close to visiting and filming.
What happened to you while you were in captivity?
I was kidnapped in the middle of the street, in front of eyewitnesses and driven to one of Hezbollah’s secret prisons. They tried to make me confess that I was purchasing arms but I insisted I was reporting. My camera which was smashed over my head by Hezbollah members; they even asked me which hand I write with and when I answered left-handed, they started hammering it with a gun. I was badly tortured and badly beaten, I had a broken nose, fingers, ribs and bruises all over my body. I was bleeding for three hours and screaming from the pain. I even passed out twice during my torture.
They knew that you were a just a journalist doing your job, right?
They knew because I identified myself as a journalist and said that I was doing a report. But they didn’t care. They just kept torturing me. They even told me several times that they promised to make me stop writing till the “end of days”.
Rami, chilling out again
After this they handed you to the authorities, what was their behaviour like?
Even during my interrogation by the Lebanese intelligence they were more focused on who I met, what reports I was working on – it was more about the nature of my job. Even the judge told me that if I solved my problems with Hezbollah he would release me. This shows how Hezbollah controls the judiciary system and especially the military tribunals in Lebanon. During my interrogation, I urged the judge to extend his investigation and try to arrest those who kidnapped me but he refused.
Do you think that in this instance the authorities are working for Hezbollah?
Sure. It’s not a secret that Hezbollah controls the army, intelligence and military tribunals and they can fabricate any story they want against you. You can never have a fair trial if your opponent is Hezbollah.
Have any charges been brought against the people involved in the arms smuggling?
For the dealers, no, because it directly involves Hezbollah but for the buyers, yes they are convicted.
So despite being able to provide evidence against Hezbollah nothing has happened to any of the members involved?
Nothing has happened to them and no one punished those who kidnapped and tortured me.
What evidence was presented against you?
I challenge them to show one piece of evidence against me. I challenge them to extend the investigation. What makes you feel sorry for Lebanon is that the criminal becomes a hero and the victim becomes a criminal. I am now convicted with the failed attempt of arms purchasing. My only weapon that night was my camera.
What do you think this says about press freedom in Lebanon?
There is no press freedom in Lebanon and freedom of speech has dropped to a dangerous level. We are turning into a real dictatorship. Journalists are facing their worst moment in the history of Lebanon and freedom of speech has disappeared.
But didn’t your sentence get reduced?
There’s no difference between two weeks and six months for me because being judged as guilty threatens my career as a journalist. My annual press credentials are needed to work as an official journalist – especially due to the nature of the topics I cover, they are very sensitive. Today, we take my case to the supreme court hoping to get innocence because I believe I was prosecuted for political reasons. I will fight for justice and innocence until the very end.
Thanks Rami. Good luck.
Follow Rami on Twitter: @ramiaysha
Follow Oz on Twitter: @OzKaterji
So here it is guys, the first of the films I shot in Lebanon with VICE and my colleagues Aris Roussinos and Phil Caller, not to mention our fantastic fixer Rami Aysha. None of this would have been achievable without the hard work of my colleagues and I am thankful for the faith they put in me. You can watch the full 30 minute film below or if you don’t have the time go over to VICE to check out the trailer! – Warlords Of Tripoli Trailer
Today’s car bomb in Dahye is the 2nd on the same street in 2 weeks. This marks a worrying chapter for Lebanon and honestly I have never heard morale so low there before. Here is a brief timeline of recent events that have happened over the last few months that can help explain just how bad things are getting. This list is incomplete and clashes in Tripoli happen so often that they don’t always get media coverage any more. Hezbollah’s engagement in Syria and the lack of a stable government has led to increased support among Lebanon’s disenfranchised Sunnis for radical armed militias and with Jabhat al Nusra entering the fray Lebanon looks set to spiral further out of control.
Seeing as no one is even discussing disarmament and unilateral disengagement from Syria, it is hard to see how sectarian tensions will not escalate further over the coming months. Lebanon is standing close to the edge of a full-blown sectarian civil war, one already engulfing Iraq and Syria, with strings on both sides being pulled by Saudi Arabia and Iran. 1/5 of Lebanon’s population is now comprised of Syrian refugees, mirroring the influx of Palestinians into Lebanon during the late 60s.
A bus-load of Palestinians was all it took to start a series of events in 1975 that led to a 15 year civil war that claimed over 120,000 lives. The scars of that war have still not healed and here we are again, nearly 40 years later preparing to make the same mistakes.
My latest for VICE on the SEA.
Hours after US officials declared that the United States may launch missile strikes against the Syrian government, pro-Assad hackers known as the Syrian Electronic Army hijacked the domain name servers of several media companies. The New York Times website was down for several hours, although the company quickly established a backup site to continue their reporting. The DNS of Twitter and Huffington Post UK were also hacked, redirecting users to a server that appeared to be hosted by the SEA.
A confirmed official Twitter account for the Syrian Electronic Army boasted about the hack shortly after it occured:
The credentials of a Melbourne IT reseller (username and password) were used to access a reseller account on Melbourne IT’s systems.
The DNS records of several domain names on that reseller account were changed – including nytimes.com
We are currently reviewing our logs to see if we can obtain information on the identity of the party that has used the reseller credentials, and we will share this information with the reseller and any relevant law enforcement bodies.
Twitter also released their own statement shortly after that claimed no user information had been compromised:
At 20:49 UTC, our DNS provider experienced an issue in which it appears DNS records for various organizations were modified, including one of Twitter’s domains used for image serving. Viewing of images and photos was sporadically impacted. By 22:29 UTC, the original domain record for Twimg.com was restored. No Twitter user information was affected by this incident.
The Syrian Electronic Army has become notorious for infiltrating the social media accounts and websites of some of the world’s largest media corporations. Earlier this year, the SEA briefly took control of the Twitter account belonging to the Associated Press. A malicious tweet claiming Barack Obama had been injured in a bomb blast at the White House caused the DOW Jones to plummet an amazing $136 billion as automated high-frequency trading bots reacted to the tweet.
VICE has spoken to the Syrian Electronic Army on several occasions, specifically following their attacks on the Associated Press, the Guardian, and the Onion. Their members have always backed the actions of the Syrian government and have refused to criticize Bashar Assad in any way. In a previous interview with an SEA member known as “The Shadow” they told us, “There is no perfect army in the world and we cannot claim that every soldier in the Syrian Arab Army adheres to the rules of combat… We are in no position to criticize specific actions by the army from the safety of our homes.”
Last April, Shadow told us that taking control of corporate accounts would be harder following Twitter’s introduction of a two-step verification process. However, at that time they warned that the public shouldn’t get too comfortable. Hijacking Twitter accounts, they said, was never their “primary attack vector.”
We contacted the SEA via email once again and received several answers from Th3Pr0, leader of the Special Operations Department in the Syrian Electronic Army. The responses to the first three questions were written in English and have been left unedited. The remainder of the interview was conducted on a separate email chain and those responses have been translated from the Arabic.
VICE: How did you gain access to the DNS of the companies you targeted? And why did you go after Twitter—aren’t there many people on Twitter against potential US intervention?
Th3Pr0: We hit Melbourne IT and gained access to all the company domains, however we attacked Twitter after they closed our account 15 time and we did warned them.
Last time we spoke, you said the Syrian Electronic Army had no contact with the Syrian government. Is that still the case?
We contacted the Syrian government lately to deliver the databases of Viber.com, Tango.me, andTrueCaller.com.
And why would these websites be important to the Syrian government?
Huge numbers of terrorists use Viber and Tango for contacting (communication).
Tell us more about the recent website attacks. They are much more advanced than your previous ones.
We have many types of attacks and we use a certain type depending on the target and how secure it is.
Who do you feel is responsible for the chemical attacks?
Of course the terrorist groups like AlNusra and the FSA, as commanded by the USA to be the means and justification to strike Syria militarily.
What evidence do you have to support your view?
The Syrian army won’t/wouldn’t use chemical weapons, and a military official has stated that this is political suicide. In addition, the fast progress by the Syrian army in Al-Ghouta.
If you believe the rebels have the technology to use chemical weapons, why have they not targeted the Syrian Army with them?
They have indeed used it against the army in Khan Al-Assal and Jobar. But the “Ghouta massacre” is to justify American military intervention because of the failure of these groups to accomplish tangible progress on the ground and shift the power balance to their favor.
Did those chemical attacks on children sicken you or make you feel angry at all?
Most of those affected were women and children and not a single terrorist, photographer, or reporter for a channel of “coordination committees” was there, which stands as an obstacle in accusing the regime. Also, how did they go to an area where “chemical weapons” were allegedly used and start filming the dead and talking without gas masks?
Foreign Policy published this yesterday:
“Last Wednesday, in the hours after a horrific chemical attack east of Damascus, an official at the Syrian Ministry of Defense exchanged panicked phone calls with a leader of a chemical weapons unit, demanding answers for a nerve agent strike that killed more than 1,000 people. Those conversations were overheard by U.S. intelligence services, The Cable has learned. And that is the major reason why American officials now say they’re certain that the attacks were the work of the Bashar al-Assad regime—and why the U.S. military is likely to attack that regime in a matter of days.”
What is your response to these allegations?
As I have said before, it is not in the best [interest] of the Syrian state to use chemical weapons when the army is making such significant progress. It is foolish to use these weapons against women and children and not use it against terrorist fighters.
If, and I mean hypothetically if, it turns out the regime was directly responsible for the chemical attacks would it change your position at all?
Of course not and it won’t happen. The Syrian army soldiers are loyal patriotic Syrians who would never use these types of weapons against the innocent. If it were actually to be used, it would be against the terrorist rebels. Most opposition fighters are mercenaries from Arab and foreign states. They are not Syrian and murdering Syrians is normal to them. They are sent by their masters to destroy Syria and kill its people.
Have things changed much on the ground for you guys? How are you all feeling about this possible Western intervention? The evidence is mounting, including the new video released.
No, nothing has changed. We were prepared for such a scenario and such a [staged] “film” as a reason to strike Syria.
How far do you think Western governments might be prepared to go?
Whatever their plans may be, we will stay and resist.
Are you guys worried you might be targeted?
No we are not worried and will stay in Syria determined and resistant.
Are there any particular issues you feel are not being heard enough?
Yes, like the massacres that occurred in the rural areas in Lattakia, where dozens of families were slaughtered by the terrorist groups and the media never mentioned it.
I said I wasn’t going to write anything about this, that there was already a saturation of analytical pieces in favour of and against intervention but really it is because I have become emotionally compromised by my reaction to how the British public have responded to this crisis. Instead of presenting an argument I just want to state for the record how I feel about our inaction.
This is our Srebrenica. While the supposed left pat each other on the back in this massive victory for democracy, we have forsaken an entire people suffering genocide and decided that our best course of action to deal with a fascist dictator in the process of slaughtering his own people is to turn our backs on it and hope the situation sorts itself out. Unlike you, clearly I do not see the distinction between British and Syrian blood. There is a grave slaughter happening in this world and I have never felt so disconnected from the opinion of the British public in all my life. As a child I protested two grotesque and unjust wars and now I am witnessing my friends, colleagues and compatriots say we should stand aside and let Assad butcher as many children as he wants with any means at his disposal with no intervention.
In 2 years time, when the death toll is as high as Rwanda, you can all pat yourselves on the back and say “We stood up for peace”. I have spent the last 2 years publishing articles detailing the unspeakable crimes of this regime, starting with the butchering of unarmed protestors such as Ghaith Matar, a man who used to go around handing flowers to Syrian Army soldiers, his dead body was handed to his parents broken, bloodied and covered in burns. Or Ibrahim Qashoush, a peaceful demonstrator that sang songs about Assad whose body was later found in the streets with his vocal chords ripped out. Or to any of the children I have seen in body bags, executed at point blank range or burned to death with blow torches.
Every time a new atrocity occurs, like last nights jet-strike napalm attack on a school playground played on the BBC you can all sleep comfortably at night knowing that you campaigned to do nothing because the situation was “too complicated” and it was safer to let the slaughter go on than to risk pissing off the regional supporters of this butcher. We should have intervened the moment he started aerially bombarding his own civilian population, instead we have decided to remain silent and that will weigh heavily on each one of our consciences.
This is our Srebrenica. We have forsaken these people.
My latest for VICE UK on Lebanon, Sidon and Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir.
A man surveys the wreckage of fighting in Sidon. Photo by Sam Tarling.
Relatively speaking, Lebanon is a madhouse. In the West, we’re used to being bombarded with images of Kanye West and David Beckham, but in Lebanon the hero-worship is mostly reserved for politicians, clerics and warlords. It seems like every other street corner is fly-postered with the giant grinning heads of political movers, shakers and agitators past and present, not letting death obstruct their view of the daily insanity that is Lebanese life.
In the last two days, fighting has taken place in the southern city and Sunni stronghold of Sidon. Over 40 people have lost their lives in clashes between Sunnis loyal to hardline Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir and the interdenominational Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). This latest outburst of violence began on Sunday evening, when it was reported that one of Assir’s bodyguards and aides had been arrested by the LAF. In response to this, Assir ordered his men to launch an attack on an army outpost, killing six soldiers and wounding a dozen more, before holing up in his compound and vowing to “stay in the mosque until the last drop of blood”.
To make things even more insane than a popular cleric starting a death or glory battle with the armed forces, popular Lebanese singer Fadel Shaker also decided to get in on the action. Shaker boasted online about having killed two “pig” soldiers, which is the equivalent of George Michael waking up one morning and informing his Twitter followers that he’d spent the previous evening going nuts with a gun at Scotland Yard.
By the end of Monday night, Assir’s mosque was in smouldering ruins. Both he and Shaker are said to have escaped, but 16 soldiers and over 25 militants lay dead and Lebanon’s tense intersect relations are more fraught than ever. On top of this, 94 wounded were rushed to local hospitals and many civilians had been trapped in their houses for days as they sheltered from the violence. Assir and Shaker, their tails between their legs, have most likely sought refuge with the FSA in Syria. If you have to choose the most dangerous country in the world as a hiding place, the future probably isn’t looking too bright for you.
Lebanese singer Fadel Shaker brags about killing two Lebanese soldiers.
Assir’s main contention is that the LAF, though harbouring all religious sects within its ranks, is terrorising Sunnis alongside Hezbollah, the Shia political militant group who have a stranglehold on Lebanon. Assir’s fears are shared by many of the country’s large Sunni population and haven’t exactly been alleviated by reports that the LAF and Hezbollah joined forces in this week’s fight for Sidon. Meanwhile, the situation has been exacertbated by the civil war in neighbouring Syria. There, the majority Sunni population is engaged in a civil war with the forces of widely despised leader Bashar al-Assad – forces that include fighters from Hezbollah. The region as a whole is slowly dividing itself along sectarian lines.
While this resentment is likely to linger, for Assir, it is now essentially game over. His drastic and extraordinary decision to attack the military has not only cost him the support of Sunni moderates but has also placed a price and arrest warrant on his head that no kind of YouTube-based PR drive will be able to shake off.
To understand how Assir rose to the kind of position from which a man feels comfortable ordering an attack on his country’s army, you also have to understand Hezbollah’s rise to power. In 2008, they forced the collapse of the Lebanese government and they still face allegations from a UN-backed court that, three years prior to that, they assassinated Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Since then, Iranian and Syrian influences have come to dominate and dictate domestic affairs and Lebanon’s de facto leader – the assassinated Prime Minister’s son, Saad Hariri – remains in hiding after (you guessed it) another failed assassination attempt.
All the while, Lebanon’s Sunni population have been forced to look on, feeling increasingly marginalised. As the Shia Muslims of Hezbollah run the show, Assir has set up himself up as a highly visible champion of the Sunni cause.
Sunni Cleric Ahmad al-Assir lashes out at the Lebanese Armed Forces.
Assir has taken advantage of a Sunni power vacuum in Lebanon. All moderates tend to be pushed to the sides by extremists like him, whose popularity – until they decide to instruct personal militias to attack the army – is allowed to grow to the detriment of the middle ground. Assir started his rise from small-time cleric to media sweetheart and wannabe warlord two years ago, luring in frustrated Sunnis with protests and fiery rhetoric aimed squarely at Hezbollah and the Syrian regime they’re currently helping to prop up. His attack on the military has shocked and appalled many people within Lebanon, even those who agree with his positions on Hezbollah and Syria. However, Assir also has a large amount of support from hardline Sunnis who see him as a political counter-weight to Hezbollah.
Assir is a clown and the Lebanese media was his circus, and any legitimate concerns he may have had about Hezbollah or Syria have now been blown out of the water. The man will now probably not see Lebanese soil again for many years to come. The worrying thing is how quickly Assir grew in popularity among Lebanese moderates who, despite his vehement fundamentalism and propensity for violence, often referred to him as “cute”, “funny” or “harmless”, like he was some sort of insane Wahabi Boris Johnson.
But if Assir is the clown, then Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is its ringmaster. With Sunni/Shi’ite relations at an all-time low across the world, Lebanon is at risk of all-out civil war, with pockets of violence frequently flaring up in Sidon, Tripoli and the Bekaa Valley. And while Assir is right about the true nature of Hezbollah and their poisonous effect on Lebanon, installing him in their place would just be replacing one group of crazy, bearded Islamists with guns with another group of crazy, bearded Islamists with guns.
Lebanon needs to take a step back from the brink – it may not have the capacity to recover from another long and brutal civil war. Disarming militias and national unity should be a national priority – instead, however, all we’ve seen for years is more bloodshed.