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Lebanese Christian leader Gebran Bassil says alliance with Hezbollah imperiled

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The head of Lebanon’s largest Christian party said on Sunday that a 15-year-old alliance with the country’s powerful Shia group Hezbollah was no longer working and must evolve.

The televised speech by Gebran Bassil, who heads the Free Patriotic Movement, signaled an unprecedented level of frustration with Hezbollah and suggested the 2006 alliance credited with helping maintain peace in the small country was in jeopardy.

Bassil’s comments come amid a devastating economic crisis and also ahead of critical parliamentary elections in which his party is expecting tough competition. Undoing the alliance with Hezbollah would cost him more votes in the May elections.

But Bassil, a former foreign minister, said the alliance is costing him credibility with supporters. Bassil is also the son-in-law of Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun. He has positioned himself as a reformer and is believed to have ambitions to run for president himself.

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Bassil pinned his frustration on Hezbollah’s other ally, the powerful Shia Amal Movement, led by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. He said in recent months Hezbollah has backed Berri’s Amal at the expense of their own alliance.

“We reached an understanding with Hezbollah (in 2006) not with Amal,” Bassil said in an hour-long speech. “When we discover that the one making decisions in (this alliance) is Amal, it is our right to reconsider.”

Hezbollah and its allies control most seats in parliament and are the main backers of the government that took office in September. But the government and parliament have been paralyzed as political disagreements deepened and as Lebanon faces an unprecedented economic crisis unraveling since 2019.

Berri is an old-time rival of Bassil, who accused him of using his power in parliament to block several of his draft bills.

Recently, Hezbollah and Amal have been widely critical of the investigation into last year’s Beirut Port investigation, accusing the judge of being biased against their allies— a position at odds with Bassil's party.

Hezbollah has asked for the judge to be removed, leading to a paralysis within the government. Deadly clashes in October that pitted Amal and Hezbollah supporters against Christian gunmen were triggered by the investigation dispute and further strained relations with Bassil’s party, which accused Amal of the violence.

Bassil criticized Hezbollah for not backing his party on reform laws that he says aim to weed out corruption and ensure decentralized financial policies, or in efforts to protect constitutional powers of the president. Such choices have left Bassil unable to justify to his supporters Hezbollah’s decisions, he added, openly blaming Berri for the rift.

“It is understandable why the Americans want to corner Hezbollah, but it is not understandable why (Hezbollah) wants to corner themselves,” Bassil said of Hezbollah’s alliance with Berri.

Hezbollah is designated a terrorist group by the United States. Bassil has been placed on a U.S. sanctions list for corruption. He claims the sanctions are to pressure him to undo his alliance with Hezbollah.

“We don’t want to cancel or tear apart the (2006) memorandum of understanding,” Bassil said. “But we want it to evolve because it no longer responds to the challenges, particularly economic and financial, facing us.”

Supporters hail the alliance as a step toward a more democratic Lebanon, transcending traditional Christian-Shia rivalry. For Hezbollah, the alliance with Christian groups, which traditionally sided with the West, provided it with cover after its 2006 war with Israel.

“Naturally, we are stronger electorally if allied with Hezbollah,” Bassil said. “But between winning the elections and gaining ourselves, we choose ourselves, our credibility and our dignity.”

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Saudi Arabia’s Khalid bin Salman: We strive to bring Yemen within GCC system

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Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Minister of Defense Prince Khalid Bin Salman said on Tuesday that the Kingdom and Gulf countries are striving to bring Yemen within the GCC system so that its people can enjoy security and stability.

“The Kingdom and the Arab Gulf states seek to bring Yemen within the GCC system so that its people can enjoy security, stability and development like other Gulf nations. However, the Houthi militias chose terrorism and destruction and used the people of Yemen as firewood that serves the Iranian regime’s agenda. We assure the people of Yemen that they are from us and we are from them and we will always be on their side,” the Prince said in a tweet.

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He added that Houthi militias employ “false promises and repetitive illusions” to “deceive” Yemenis and “recruit them into a deadly war.”

“The time has come for Yemeni wisdom, and the wise men of Yemen, to forsake those illusions and promises, and to preserve the free people of Yemen from the tampering of terrorist militias,” the Prince said.

Prince Khalid’s statements come a day after the UAE’s capital Abu Dhabi was rocked on Monday when drone attacks led to a fire breaking out and resulted in the explosion of three petroleum tankers, killing three people and wounding six others. There was also another fire that broke out in the area of the new construction site of Abu Dhabi International Airport.

Yemen’s Houthi militia claimed responsibility for the attack saying it conducted an operation “deep in the UAE.”

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US worries Russian troop arrival could lead to nuclear weapons in Belarus

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The US is worried that the arrival of Russian troops in Belarus for exercises could become a permanent presence that might lead to nuclear weapons into the country, a senior State Department official told reporters Tuesday.

Russian military forces were moving into Belarus after Moscow-allied strongman Alexander Lukashenko announced Monday that the two countries will conduct military exercises next month.

The move, which came without customary advance notice being provided countries in the region, added to rising tensions with the West over the possible Russian invasion of Ukraine, which borders Belarus.

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The US official, speaking on grounds of anonymity, said the size of the Russian force arriving in Belarus was “beyond what we'd expect of a normal exercise.”

“The timing is notable and, of course, raises concerns that Russia could intend to station troops in Belarus under the guise of joint military exercises in order potentially to attack Ukraine,” the official said.

The official said that changes to the Belarus constitution in a referendum next month could allow the Russian military presence to become permanent.

“These draft constitutional changes may indicate Belarus plans to allow both Russian conventional and nuclear forces to be stationed on its territory,” the official said.

That would represent a “challenge to European security that may require a response,” the official said.

Belarus also borders NATO-member Poland.

“Over time, Lukashenko has relied more and more on Russia for all kinds of support. And we know that he doesn't get that support for free,” the US official said.

“It's clear Russia is preying on Lukashenko's vulnerability and calling in a little bit of accumulated IOUs,” the official said.

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North Korea tested tactical guided missiles in fresh sign of evolving arsenal

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North Korea fired tactical guided missiles on Monday, state media KCNA said on Tuesday, the latest in a series of recent tests that highlighted its evolving missile programs amid stalled denuclearisation talks.

The missile test was the North's fourth in 2022, with two previous launches involving “hypersonic missiles” capable of high speed and manoeuvring after lift-off, and another test on Friday using a pair of SRBMs fired from train cars.

The UN Security Council is likely to meet behind closed-doors on Thursday on the continued missile launches, diplomats said. The US, Britain, France, Ireland and Albania made the request on Tuesday for a Council discussion.

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South Korea's military said on Monday that North Korea launched two short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) from an airport in its capital, Pyongyang, which flew about 380 km (236 miles) to a maximum altitude of 42,000 meters (137,800 feet).

The Academy of Defence Science conducted a test of tactical guided missiles from the country's west, and they “precisely hit an island target” off the east coast, the official KCNA news agency said on Tuesday, without elaborating.

“The test-fire was aimed to selectively evaluate tactical guided missiles being produced and deployed and to verify the accuracy of the weapon system,” KCNA said.

It “confirmed the accuracy, security and efficiency of the operation of the weapon system under production.”

The unusually rapid sequence of launches has drawn US condemnation and a push for new UN sanctions while Pyongyang warns of stronger actions, raising the spectre of a return to the period of “fire and fury” threats in 2017.

US Special Representative for North Korea Sung Kim urged Pyongyang to “cease its unlawful and destabilising activities” and reopen dialogue, saying he was open to meeting “without preconditions,” the State Department said after a call with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts.

South Korea's defence ministry said on Tuesday that it takes all North Korean missile launches as a “direct and serious threat,” but its military is capable of detecting and intercepting them.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric also called the North's tests “increasingly concerning” during a briefing, calling for all parties to return to talks to defuse tension and promote a “very verifiable denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.”

‘Show of force’

North Korea used Pyongyang's Sunan airport to test-fire the Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) in 2017, with leader Kim Jong Un in attendance.

North Korea has not tested its longest-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) or nuclear weapons since 2017, as a flurry of diplomacy with Washington unfolded from 2018. But it began testing a range of new SRBM designs after denuclearisation talks stalled and slipped back into a standoff following a failed summit in 2019.

Kim did not attend the latest test.

A photo released by KCNA showed a missile rising into the sky above a cloud of dust, belching flame.

Kim Dong-yup, a former South Korea Navy officer who teaches at Seoul's Kyungnam University, said North Korea appears to have fired KN-24 SRBMs, which were last tested in March 2020 and flew 410 km (255 miles) to a maximum altitude of 50,000 meters (164,042 feet).

The KN-24 resembles the US MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) and is designed to evade missile defences and carry out precision strikes, he said.

“The North seems to have already deployed and begun mass production of the KN-24,” Kim said, referring to the KCNA report.

“But essentially, the test could be another show of force to underline their recent warning of action.”

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