Hizbollah General Secretary meets Ahmadinejad in Damascus

Hassan Nasrallah meets with Bashar al-Assad and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Damascus. A suicide attack kills seventeen in Kabul. A previously banned judgement on MI5’s use of torture is published. All this and more, in today’s security update.

Oliver Scanlan
26 February 2010

Late on Thursday, Hizbollah’s Al-Manar television station was reporting that Hizbollah general secretary Hassan Nasrallah had met with President Ahmadinejad of Iran and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. Although it is not known whether the Hizbollah leader also met with Khaled Meshal, general secretary of Hamas, it has been reported that Ahmadinejad met with the leaders of ten Palestinian movements. The purpose of the meeting was, according to Meshal, to coordinate a joint effort to ‘contend with Zionist bragging’.

News of the meeting comes a day after Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak called on his US counterpart, Robert Gates, to impose sanctions against Iran as soon as possible. During the meeting in Washington DC, the former Israeli general and prime minister said that sanctions were imperative if any further advancement of Iran’s nuclear capabilities were to be frozen. He also drew attention to Hizbollah, noting that the Shi’ite militant group was ‘constantly re-arming itself’.

Further news during the week indicated that the People’s Republic of China would still be unwilling to support any further sanctions proposed at the UN Security Council, despite robust pressure from the Obama administration. Anonymous quotes from two senior European diplomats suggested US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s optimism that China may be moving closer to the US point of view was based on the assumption that the PRC would want to avoid diplomatic isolation, rather than tangible facts indicating such a development.

The openSecurity verdict: With diplomatic efforts to resolve the nuclear standoff with Tehran frustrated, the momentum towards further sanctions is building rapidly. Both the EU and US are convinced of the necessity to coerce Iran into rethinking its nuclear development, and Russia appears to have acquiesced in this course of action. United States diplomacy towards Russia has been astute in the months leading up to this point, with notable concessions such as President Obama’s shelving of US ballistic missile interceptor bases in central and eastern Europe.

In contrast, United States diplomacy towards China has been almost unceasingly confrontational. The litany of disagreements over the previous few months include a substantial arms sale to Taiwan, a Presidential meeting with the Dalai Lama, accusations of China’s involvement in a cyber-attack on Google and Washington economists’ persistent hectoring of Beijing over the value of the renminbi and its role in the trade deficit between the two countries. The hope that China would forego its intended veto or in such a context seems naive in the extreme.

To hawks unable to implement credible sanctions, a military strike looks increasingly attractive. Even if, as is likely, the US stays at arm’s length while permitting an Israeli move, regional escalation and international retaliation remains a chilling prospect, as the Damascus meeting highlights. Although long considered a proxy of Iran, there has been further evidence over the last year that Hizbollah has increasingly come under the influence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Hamas, described by analysts as the ‘junior varsity’ to Hezbollah and a beneficiary of training provided by the Shi’ite group, is also dependent on Syria and Iran for weaponry. The Damascus meeting raises the spectre which IDF strategic planning has contended with for several years now: that a strike on Iran would lead to a concerted counter-attack by Hezbollah, Hamas and Syria supported by long-range Iranian Shahab-3 ballistic missile strikes. Bearing in mind the dispersion of Hezbollah missile sites beyond its traditional heartland in the Bekaa valley, with some batteries located north of Beirut, an operation in which the US was conspicuously absent would still be enough to turn a ‘precision’ strike into a regional conflagration.

Kabul hit by suicide attack

At 6:30am local time on Friday, Kabul was struck by a suicide attack that left seventeen people dead, including at least nine Indian nationals, a Frenchman and an Italian. The attack comprised at least one bomb blast and a protracted gun battle between security forces and insurgents that lasted for hours and led to the deaths of two policemen as well as three gunmen. The Taliban have claimed credit for the attack, which has been labelled as ‘barbaric’ by India.

This is the first terrorist attack carried out by the Taliban since the arrest of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, characterised by analysts as a key leadership figure, earlier in February. It is also the first attack on Kabul since the beginning of Operation Moshtarak in Helmand province. Commentators are speculating that, despite the appalling loss of life caused, the main value of the assault to the Taliban is in terms of propaganda; despite conventional military gains against its powerbase and the arrest of a key commander, the insurgency is still able to strike, with apparent impunity, at the heart of the coalition-supported Karzai regime.

Only hours after the attack occurred, the German parliament agreed to increase its military commitment to Afghanistan by 800 troops, bringing overall force levels to 5,350. The Bundestag also voted to extend the troop deployment for another year. Although coalition partners will welcome the move, the increase is less than was hoped for, reflecting popular discontent with the war. In the debate leading up to the vote, Christine Buchholz, a Left Party parliamentarian, described ongoing coalition military operations as ‘a war against the ordinary population in Afghanistan.’

Banned MI5 torture judgement published

On Friday, the head of the British judiciary released a previously unpublished judgement regarding the UK’s security service, popularly known as MI5, which is heavily critical of its human rights record. Ivor Judge said that this had been done ‘in the interests of open justice’. The comments, issued in a draft judgement by Lord Neuberger, the second highest ranking judge in the country, described the security service’s human rights record as ‘dubious’, and called into question the agency’s probity in accurately accounting for its behaviour to the judiciary.

The judgement was provoked by the ongoing case of Binyam Mohamed’s arrest and detention by the US. The Ethiopian-born British resident was arrested in Pakistan in 2002 and subsequently claims to have been routinely tortured during his detention in several facilities as part of the US’ extraordinary rendition programme. Mohamed claims that, prior to his release in 2009, British agents were complicit in the acts of torture committed against him. The foreign and home secretaries and the agency’s own director general have written in the press defending MI5’s human rights record, while NGOs such as Human Rights Watch maintain that the agency has actively colluded in torture as a routine method of gaining intelligence.

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