Anyone who thought references to the Assads’ “killing machine” in Syria’s civil war was hyperbolic metaphor should read a horrendously literal report that has just surfaced, detailing the “industrial scale” killing of about 11,000 detainees in the regime’s dungeons. It provides harrowing confirmation of what organisations from the UN to Human Rights Watch had partially documented: the systematic liquidation, usually by or after torture, of those who question or combat the Assad tyranny.
The report is based largely on evidence assembled and smuggled out on a memory stick by a Syrian military policeman, codenamed Caesar to protect him and his family from reprisals, whose job it was to photograph the dead bodies, often up to 50 a day. The evidence has been examined by lead prosecutors for the war crimes tribunals of Sierra Leone and the former Yugoslavia and top international forensics experts, commissioned by a London law firm on behalf of Qatar, which has been a leading supporter of Syria’s rebels. They found it to be credible evidence of crimes against humanity and war crimes that would stand up in a court of law. Read more
Ariel Sharon (right), then Israel's prime minister, shakes hands with Palestinian prime minister Mahmud Abbas as US President George W Bush watches during a 2003 summit in Aqaba, Jordan. (AFP/Getty)
Ariel Sharon, who died on Saturday, was unquestionably a historic figure. He fought in all of Israel’s major wars – including the disastrous 1982 Lebanon invasion he essentially originated. He is also the principal architect of an Israeli settlement policy long designed to make the occupation of roughly half the West Bank and most of Arab east Jerusalem permanent. While all can agree – as no portrait of Sharon and his impressive but dynamic bulk neglects to point out – that he was “larger than life”, only within the solipsistic terms of debate of much of Israel’s political elite, and those who defer to it, can he be seen as a great statesman and master strategist.
Sharon’s reputation as a warrior began with his role in the 1948 war that established the state of Israel. But, as historian Avi Shlaim and other revisionist scholars have shown, he quickly became the spearhead of a policy of reprisals and provocations aimed at expanding the new state’s borders, which its political and military establishment regarded as dangerously vulnerable if not indefensible. David Ben Gurion, Israel’s founding father, backed by General Moshe Dayan and usually using Arab infiltration as the pretext, attacked Jordan, Egypt and Syria across the 1948-49 armistice lines between 1953 and 1955. The officer who led the main operations, establishing early on a reputation for bloodthirstiness, was Ariel Sharon. Read more
Scene of the huge car bomb explosion that rocked central Beirut, killing Mohamed Chatah and at least four others on December 27, 2013 (Getty)
The bombing in the heart of Beirut on Friday morning, which killed leading Sunni politician Mohammed Chatah, was no random terror attack or communal reprisal. It was a targeted assassination, which would have required careful reconnaissance, detailed intelligence, and complex logistics.
The blast that destroyed Chatah’s car, leaving little but shredded metal and a torn vehicle license that identified its owner, took place not very far from where Rafik Hariri, former prime minister and the towering figure of modern Lebanon, was assassinated by a vast bomb in February 2005. Read more
The twin blasts that devastated Iran’s embassy in Beirut this morning mark a new and menacing stage in the spillover of Syria’s civil war into Lebanon – just as a major battle is getting underway in the Qalamoun hills bordering the two countries. Read more
Army chief Gen Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on an anti-Islamist protester's placard. US president Obama is depicted as a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood. Getty
When the army and security forces ignored pleas for restraint from Egypt’s allies in the US and Europe, moving to crush the Muslim Brotherhood protest camps that spread across Cairo after the July 3 coup d’etat that toppled President Mohamed Morsi, they had reason to feel supremely confident.
What General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and his colleagues have done is to restore the security state – an action that should not be confused with re-establishing security.
This restoration is edging towards the status quo ante the Tahrir revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak in 2011. It started before the coup, with the constitution Morsi and the Brothers railroaded through last December. Most of the controversy excited by this Islamist-tinged charter was caused by the way it ignored liberal, Christian and women’s concerns over fundamental rights and freedoms. Alarmingly little attention was paid to the way the Brotherhood sought to co-opt the military by embedding the army’s privileges and prerogatives even beyond the powers it enjoyed under Mubarak. Read more
Residents gather at the site of an explosion in Beirut's southern suburbs, stronghold of Hizbollah, July 9, 2013. AFP/Getty
Hizbollah has brushed off the European Union’s decision on Monday to blacklist its “military wing” as a terrorist organisation. Well, it would, wouldn’t it.
The Shia paramilitary group issued the mandatory rhetorical broadside. “It looks as if the decision was written by American hands and with Israeli ink”, it said, to which “the EU only had to add its signature”.
In fact, as Hizbollah would surely know, it takes a great deal more than that for the EU’s 28 member-states to reach a consensus on anything at all. Read more
Protesters outside the PP HQ (Getty)
Things are not looking good for Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s prime minister. Luis Bárcenas, the treasurer of his right-wing Partido Popular for 20 years until 2009 who is at the centre of a series of interlinked illegal party financing scandals, was feared to be a ticking bomb. On Monday he started ticking very loudly indeed.
Giving evidence to an investigating judge on an alleged multi-million euro slush fund, Mr Bárcenas confirmed the existence of covert corporate donations and off-the-books cash payments to senior party figures. Leaked photocopies of the former treasurer’s secret accounts were published by the left-liberal El País newspaper on January 31. On July 7, El Mundo, its conservative rival, published a patchy interview with Mr Bárcenas, jailed last month in case he fled the country.
In the interview, Mr Bárcenas for the first time confirmed the existence of the secret ledgers; affirmed that the PP had been financing itself illegally for 20 years; and that the totality of the documents in his possession could bring down the government – a thinly veiled threat presumably aimed at trying to get Mr Rajoy to intervene in the judicial process. Read more
For all the more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger protestations, this coup d’état was about as retro as they come. Troops surrounded state broadcasting headquarters early on, and once the army commander had finished his televised announcement of the government’s demise, the plugs were pulled on the ruling party, silencing its TV stations.
But the choreography of this coup – ousting Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected and only Islamist president, after one year in power – was unusual.
General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the army chief of staff, mobilised extra divisions of no mean significance. As he replaced Mr Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood with a transitional government, he was flanked by the Sheikh of al-Azhar university, the leading Sunni Muslim authority, the Pope of Egypt’s sizeable Coptic Christian minority, Mohamed ElBaradei, Nobel peace laureate and leader of Egypt’s liberals, and youthful activists who brought down the army-backed dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, the high spring of the new Arab Awakening. Read more
A view of Qusair (AP)
It would seem that Qusair, the rebel-held town astride the strategic corridor between Homs and the northeast Lebanese border, has fallen to forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. Syrian state media, and al-Manar, the TV station of Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia allied to the Assads, have made the claim. But the situation on the ground was looking desperate for the rebels, despite their attempts to resupply the city. And officials in Damascus have been contacting journalists in the region since late last week, confident they could lay on a propaganda coup once this now emblematic town fell.
Here are some preliminary thoughts on the significance of this battle:
* The fall of al-Qusair is a serious blow to the rebels’ disparate forces. It cuts one of their supply lines from Lebanon to Homs; it restores government control over the Damascus-to-Aleppo highway; and, critically, it reconnects the capital to the north-west coast, the heartland of the Alawite minority around which the Assad clan has built its dictatorship and security state; Read more
The battle raging in al-Qusair, about 15km east of Lebanon’s northern border, looks ominously like a turning point in Syria’s civil war. If the Assad regime can recapture this strategic corridor from the rebels, it will, on the face of it, be a morale-boosting triumph.
It will also almost certainly flatten the few remaining barriers to this bloody conflict turning into an out-and-out sectarian fight between Sunni and Shia that will graft an uncontrollable regional dimension onto what began as an Arab Spring struggle for freedom from tyranny.
Militarily, the narrow corridor between Homs and the Lebanese border is a great prize for both sides. The Homs Gap, as it is sometimes called, has always been the natural gateway from the Syrian coast to the interior; not for nothing did the Crusaders build a line of castles there (including the magnificent Krak des Chevaliers, reportedly already damaged by regime shelling). Read more