14 August 2008

* Tripoli Bombing Message to Beirut

An explosion destroyed a bus in Lebanon's northern city of Tripoli on Aug.
13, an attack likely carried out by Saudi-backed Salafist militants.
Lebanon's new government, with Syrian help, plans to crack down on the
militants -- but this blast is meant to signal that the Salafists will not
go down without a fight.


An explosive device detonated Aug. 13 on a bus in a busy part of the
northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, killing at least 18 people and wounding
at least 40 others. Initial reports say between seven and 11 soldiers were
among the dead.

The bombing was most likely the work of Saudi-backed Salafist militants, who
are trying to resist a coming Syrian-backed crackdown against them. As the
crackdown intensifies, the Salafists will likely ratchet up their attacks --
and tensions will rise between Damascus and Riyadh.

Tripoli, Lebanon's financial hub and second-largest city, has a population
of around 500,000, made up mostly of Sunnis and small pockets of Maronite
Christians and Alawites (an offshoot of the Shia). This bustling city has
been the scene of escalating violence between Syrian-backed Alawite
fighters, Shiite Hezbollah troops and Saudi-backed Sunni fighters over the
past several months. Stratfor forecast that  Tripoli would be at the
forefront of factional fighting in Lebanon in 2008 when it became clear in
late 2007 that several groups were intensely building up militias in
response to Hezbollah's growing presence in this mainly Sunni city.

Meanwhile, the Aug. 13 bus bombing coincides with Lebanese President and
former army chief Gen. Michel Suleiman's two-day visit to Damascus, a
historic trip during which progress might be made toward establishing full
diplomatic ties between Damascus and Beirut for the first time. This visit
reflects a growing reality in Lebanon that Syria has resumed its status as
the country's main power broker.

One of the main losers in a Syrian-dominated Lebanon are the Saudi-backed
Sunni militants. Suleiman, a Maronite Christian who has close ties with
Damascus, is in the process of striking a deal with his Syrian counterpart,
President Bashar al Assad, to crush the Sunni militant movement in Tripoli.
In the summer of 2007, al Assad and Suleiman (who then was still commander
of the Lebanese army) collaborated on a military offensive to destroy Sunni
Fatah al-Islam militants in Lebanon's Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee
camp. Most of those killed in this operation were Saudi nationals. That
crackdown made Suleiman a national hero in Lebanon, and in Syria's eyes, it
made him a man worthy of being groomed as Lebanon's next president.

With the uptick in relations between Beirut and Damascus, another crackdown
is on the agenda. The Aug. 13 bus bombing was likely carried out to signal
to Suleiman that Tripoli's Sunni militants do not intend to go down without
a fight.

The current rise in violence will escalate tensions between Syria and Saudi
Arabia. Riyadh has been backing Lebanon's secular nationalist Sunnis -- Saad
al-Hariri's Tayyar al Mustaqbal movement -- in hopes of stemming the tide of
Hezbollah penetration of Sunni areas in northern Lebanon and breaking ties
between Hezbollah and the Syrian-backed Alawites in Tripoli's Jabal Muhsin
area. The nationalist Sunnis have turned out to be ineffective, however, and
Riyadh is now pouring money into Tripoli to prop up local Salafist militant
leaders, using Tripoli as a staging ground to apply pressure on the Alawite
regime in Damascus.

The Saudis want to push Syria back into the Arab fold and isolate Hezbollah,
and they have been trying to use the Israeli-Syrian peace process to this
end. Syria already has an incentive to further its negotiations with Israel
and limit Hezbollah's power, but these negotiations are still a work in

Syria, for its part, wants to ensure that it remains the dominant power in
Lebanon and that the country's Sunni faction is contained. The last thing
Damascus needs is for Salafist militants in Tripoli to link up with Sunni
militants in Syria to pose a direct threat to the al Assad regime. The
coming crackdown in Tripoli will attempt to ward off such an alliance and
limit Riyadh's influence in Lebanon.


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Lebanon Time-Line

Introducing Lebanon

Coolly combining the ancient with the ultramodern, Lebanon is one of the most captivating countries in the Middle East. From the Phoenician findings of Tyre (Sour) and Roman Baalbek's tremendous temple to Beirut's BO18 and Bernard Khoury's modern movement, the span of Lebanon's history leaves many visitors spinning. Tripoli (Trablous) is considered to have the best souk in the country and is famous for its Mamluk architecture. It's well equipped with a taste of modernity as well; Jounieh, formerly a sleepy fishing village, is a town alive with nightclubs and glitz on summer weekends.

With all of the Middle East's best bits - warm and welcoming people, mind-blowing history and considerable culture, Lebanon is also the antithesis of many people's imaginings of the Middle East: mostly mountainous with skiing to boot, it's also laid-back, liberal and fun. While Beirut is fast becoming the region's party place, Lebanon is working hard to recapture its crown as the 'Paris of the Orient'.

The rejuvenation of the Beirut Central District is one of the largest, most ambitious urban redevelopment projects ever undertaken. Travellers will find the excitement surrounding this and other developments and designs palpable - and very infectious.

Finally, Lebanon's cuisine is considered the richest of the region. From hummus to hommard (lobster), you'll dine like a king. With legendary sights, hospitality, food and nightlife, what more could a traveller want?

Introducing Beirut

What Beirut is depends entirely on where you are. If you’re gazing at the beautifully reconstructed colonial relics and mosques of central Beirut’s Downtown, the city is a triumph of rejuvenation over disaster.

If you’re in the young, vibrant neighbourhoods of Gemmayzeh or Achrafiye, Beirut is about living for the moment: partying, eating and drinking as if there’s no tomorrow. If you’re standing in the shadow of buildings still peppered with bullet holes, or walking the Green Line with an elderly resident, it’s a city of bitter memories and a dark past. If you’re with Beirut’s Armenians, Beirut is about salvation; if you’re with its handful of Jews, it’s about hiding your true identity. Here you’ll find the freest gay scene in the Arab Middle East, yet homosexuality is still illegal. If you’re in one of Beirut’s southern refugee camps, Beirut is about sorrow and displacement; other southern districts are considered a base for paramilitary operations and south Beirut is home to infamous Hezbollah secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. For some, it’s a city of fear; for others, freedom.

Throw in maniacal drivers, air pollution from old, smoking Mercedes taxis, world-class universities, bars to rival Soho and coffee thicker than mud, political demonstrations, and swimming pools awash with more silicone than Miami. Add people so friendly you’ll swear it can’t be true, a political situation existing on a knife-edge, internationally renowned museums and gallery openings that continue in the face of explosions, assassinations and power cuts, and you’ll find that you’ve never experienced a capital city quite so alive and kicking – despite its frequent volatility.