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Tensions rise between Israel and Hizbollah after Hariri indictiments

All eyes are on the Hizbollah-dominated Lebanese government as the UN indicts senior members over the Hariri killing. Referendum begins on Morocco’s revised constitution. US applying pressure on Syrian opposition to engage with Assad. All this and more, in today’s security briefing…
Oliver Scanlan
1 July 2011

On Thursday, members of the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon handed criminal indictments for four senior members of the Shi’ia Islamist Hizbollah movement to Lebanon’s prosecutor general. They are accused of carrying out the car-bomb attack that killed then Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005. Hizbollah, which leads the coalition government in Beirut, has consistently denied the claims, and has accused the UN Tribunal of being in hoc to the interests of western and Israeli intelligence agencies.

The long-expected verdict from the UN Special Tribunal will undoubtedly inflame tension along Israel’s northern border. There is obviously no guarantee that the Lebanese government, which is currently led by a Hizbollah-headed coalition, will move on the indictments. Saad Hariri, the son of the slain PM, hailed the verdict, calling it a ‘historic moment’ and called upon the Hizbollah-led government to abide by its commitments to the UN Tirbunal.

The openSecurity verdict: Despite the ongoing chaos in Syria, remaining questions over the strategic posture of post-Mubarak Egypt, and the ever present spectre of Iran, Israel’s border with Lebanon is the flashpoint that could most easily erupt into violent conflict. The spate of stories detailing the arrest of Israeli intelligence agents in Lebanon, including within Hizbollah itself, suggests that the perennial war of shadows between the Shi’ia guerrilla movement and Israel is intensifying.

It is worth recalling that the supposed strategic logic of eliminating Hizbollah infrastructure as a necessary precursor to military action against Iran, was a major encouragement to Israel launching such a large-scale response to Hizbollah kidnappings in 2006. With Syria weakened by domestic turmoil, and post-Mubarak Egypt still very much in the hands of a cautious and pro-American army, the IDF may not need to act with restraint in the face of provocations from across its northern border.

Whether the condemnation of the UN Tribunal Report by the Hizbollah-led Lebanese government would amount to such a provocation seems unlikely. At the same time, the domestic consequences of such a decision are impossible to forsee. Domestic turmoil in Lebanon, against the backdrop of the wider, erratic currents of popular protest and repression across the region, could provide the spark to fresh hostilities across the Blue Line.

Voting begins on Morocco’s revised constitution

At 8:00am on Friday, polls opened for a referendum on Morocco’s revised constitution which, if implemented, would see the diminution of the monarch’s powers after thirteen centuries of its existence. The new constitution would see executive power in the north African state transferred to the elected government, with the king retaining authority over the army, judiciary and religious authorities. It would also dilute the king’s ability to summarily dismiss parliament. In Morocco, thirteen million out of a population of 32 million are registered to vote.

The referendum was announced last month by the current monarch, Mohammed VI, in what is being suggested by commentators as an attempt to insulate Morocco against the effects of the Arab Spring. Despite the ostensibly substantive concessions offered in the new constitution, there is some speculation that it may not succeed.

The key issue is that most Moroccans are less concerned with the institutional mechanics of government, than on the daily experience of enormous wealth inequalities, high unemployment and corruption.  The opposition 20 February movement has called for a boycott of the poll while continuing to organise protests; although the street movements have not been as widespread as in Tunisia and Egypt, a low turnout could have potentially severe repercussions for the stability of both Morocco and its monarchy.

US presses for Syrian opposition to engage with Assad

The United States is reportedly encouraging Syrian opposition leaders to reach an accommodation with President Bashar al Assad, and supporting discussion of an unpublished ‘road map’ for government reform. The road map was first circulated on Monday, at a government sanctioned conference of opposition leaders, which was attended by 150 people. The road map’s authors include two public intellectuals, Louay Hussein and Maan Abdelsalam, who are members of the National Action Committee and who chaired the Monday conference.

The road map aims for a peaceful transition to democracy, via the convening of a transitional assembly. Its stipulations include the wide ranging implementation of civil liberties, the reigning in of security forces, the hobbling of the hegemonic Ba’ath party while opening up the political space to opposition parties and a full apology and compensation to the victims of the vicious state crackdown on protests. Opposition figures claim that 1,400 civilians have been killed since the crackdown began in March.

The US’ role in this process is controversial; US ambassador Robert Ford’s urging of opposition leaders to engage with the government has drawn criticism both from the regime’s opponents, who resent perceived US meddling, and law makers in the US. The engagement stance promoted on the ground appears to be at odds with the Obama administration’s insistence that Assad should reform or step down. On the other hand, the road map itself has been rejected by several opposition figures because it leaves Assad in place.

US employs drones in Somalia

Last week, senior members of the Al-Shabab Islamist guerilla movement were reportedly attacked by a US predator drone, which wounded two of them. It is the first apparent use of drones in the country by US military forces. Al-Shabab is currently engaged in hostilities against the fragile Transitional Federal Government, aiming to overthrow the tottering regime and institute Sha’ria law.

The expansion of drone attacks into a sixth country after Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya marks the entrenchment of US preferences for ‘surgical strikes’ over costly interventions with ground forces. The US military will be supplying drones to other governments in Africa, including Uganda and Burundi. Although the switch to stand off weaponry such as drones will no doubt be welcomed by deficit hawks in the administration, it has still to be demonstrated how strategically decisive such ‘surgical strikes’ can be.

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