Lebanon's hashish heartland of the Bekaa Valley, hit by rocket-fire from Syria on June 1, has become increasingly embroiled in the civil war raging across the border. The fertile valley, which was occupied by Syria from 1976 to 2005, is a patchwork of Sunni and Shi'ite areas, and during Lebanon's civil war in 1980s the hashish and opium trade there funded sectarian militias. There are now ominous signs of a return to this deadly rivalry. In late March, gunmen from the Sunni town of Arsal—a conduit for arms and fighters for the Syrian rebels—kidnapped a member of the powerful Shi'ite Jaafar tribe, who was absconded across the border to the rebel-held Syrian town of Yabroud, north of Damascus. The Jaafars retaliated by kidnapping six Arsal residents—ransoming them to raise the ransom money to free their comrade held in Yabroud. Lebanese security forces helped oversee the hostage exchange, and no charges were brought. Arsal has also been the target of occasional cross-border shelling, presumably by the Syrian military. On May 27, unidentified gunmen attacked a Lebanese border checkpoint near the town, killing three soldiers.
Syrian elite troops are backing up an offensive apparently led by Hezbollah against rebels in the strategic town of Qusayr, as the UN Human Rights Council debates a resolution condemning the assault. Russia meanwhile protests a European Union decision to lift its arms embargo on the Syrian rebels, and says it will respond by supplying Damascus with S-300 air-defense missiles. This, in turn, is decried as a "threat" by Israel, which warns it could launch air-strikes to destroy any deployed missiles. "The situation is beginning to show worrying signs of destabilizing the region as a whole," said UN rights chief Navi Pillay.
Turkey will build a 2.5-kilometer wall along the Cilvegözü post on the border with Syria to prevent illegal crossings, Trade and Customs Minister Hayati Yazıcı announced May 23. The border crossing lies within 10 kilometers from Reyhanlı town, where a twin bomb attack killed 51 and wounded more than 100 on May 11. A protocol with the Turkish Armed Forces has already been signed for the construction of the wall, Yazıcı said. (Hürriyet Daily News via France24, May 24)
Israeli missiles struck a research center near Damascus, setting off explosions and causing casualties, Syria's state news agency reported May 5. If confirmed, it would be the second Israeli strike on targets in Syria in three days. Two previous Israeli air-strikes, one in January and one on May 3, targeted weapons reportedly bound for Hezbollah. (AP, May 5) On May 4, a former senior official in the Bush administration said the use of chemical weapons in Syria might have been an Israeli-instrumented "false flag operation." Retired Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell's former chief of staff, told Current TV: "We don’t know what the chain of custody is. This could’ve been an Israeli false flag operation, it could’ve been an opposition in Syria... or it could've been an actual use by Bashar Assad. But we certainly don’t know with the evidence we’ve been given. And what I'm hearing from the intelligence community is that that evidence is really flakey." (JP, May 4)
The Assad regime's use of chemical weapons is announced as a "red line"—the favored metaphor of Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu, now alarmingly accepted by the US media, at least. Israel yesterday said the line has been crossed. Brigadier-General Itai Brun, head of IDF military intelligence, told an Institute for National Security Studies conference in Tel Aviv: "There's a huge arsenal of chemical weapons in Syria. Our assessment is that the [Assad] regime has used and is using chemical weapons." Brun cited photographs of victims that showed them foaming at the mouth and with contracted pupils. "To the best of our understanding, there was use of lethal chemical weapons. Which chemical weapons? Probably sarin." And John Kerry, speaking at a NATO meeting in Brussels, called on the alliance to make preparations to respond in the event of chemical weapons threatening a member (meaning Turkey). (The Guardian, April 23)
As the Friends of Syria summit opened in Istanbul April 20, US Secretary of State John Kerry announced plans to provide $100 million in new "non-lethal" aid to the Syrian opposition—and the Syrian National Coalition demanded actual weapons, threatening to break off talks with the international group if they are not forthcoming. The Coalition also called for drone strikes on the Syrian army's missile sites, and the imposition of no-fly zones. The "non-lethal" package is to include body armor, night-vision goggles, vehicles and other aid with military applications. Kerry nonetheless said the aid "underscores the United States' firm support for a political solution to the crisis in Syria and for the opposition's advancement of an inclusive, tolerant vision for a post-Assad Syria." The new package brings total US aid to the Syrian opposition to $250 million since the fighting began.
Israeli warplanes carried out an air-strike overnight on Syrian territory near the border with Lebanon. Unnamed US and "regional" (presumably Israeli) officials said the target was a weapons convoy with a shipment that included Russian-made SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles bound for Hezbollah, which would be strategically "game-changing" in the hands of the militant group. Damascus called the strikes an act of "Israeli arrogance and aggression" that raised the risks that the two-year-old civil conflict in Syria could spread beyond the country's borders. The regime said a research facility in the Damascus suburbs had been hit, and denied that a convoy had been the target. The attack comes days after Israel expressed concerns that Damascus' stockpile of chemical weapons could fall into the hands of Hezbollah. Israel had no official statement on the air-strikes.
Argentina signed an agreement with Iran on Jan. 27 to create an independent Commission of Truth to investigate the 1994 bombing of the Buenos Aires Jewish community center. Argentinian courts have accused Iran of sponsoring the attack, which killed 85 people, and in 2007 Argentine authorities secured Interpol arrest warrants for five Iranians, including current Defense Minister Gen. Ahmad Vahidi. Despite strong objections by Israel, the US and the Argentine Jewish community, Argentina's Foreign Minister Hector Timerman, who is Jewish, and his Iranian counterpart Ali Akbar Salehi have been involved in a series of bilateral talks that began with their first meeting at the UN headquarters in New York in September.