A rocket strike near an important Shi'ite shrine in the southern suburbs of Damascus killed one of its custodians July 19. The gold-domed Bibi Zainab shrine, said to hold the remains of the daughter of Shia founder Imam Ali and ground-daughter of the Prophet Mohammed, is now being protected by hundreds of volunteer Shi'ite fighters from Iraq and Hezbollah troops. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has threatened "grave retribution" if any harm befalls the shrine. (Reuters, July 20) Shi'ites held mass rallies in Islamabad, Karachi and other Pakistani cities against the attack on the shrine. (GeoTV, INP, July 12)
The Islamic Jihad movement in Gaza announced June 23 that it was temporarily suspending ties with Hamas, accusing Gaza authorities of being responsible for the death of one of the group's members. Raed Qassim Jundeyeih, a member of Islamic Jihad's militant wing, the al-Quds Brigades, died after being shot a day earlier by Hamas police officers. Police had gone to an address in Gaza City June 22 to deliver summons orders to a member of the Jundeyeih family. Upon approaching the home, members of the family opened fire at the officers and Jundeyeih was wounded in the ensuing gunfight.
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.