24 September 2008

* Syrian Troops and Heightened Fears along the Border

Some 10,000 Syrian troops have been deployed along Syria's northern border with Lebanon, and Syrian President Bashar al Assad even attended a major military drill in the border area on Sept. 22. It is unclear whether Syria simply wants to pressure Saudi Arabia to concede influence in Lebanon, or if it actually intends to move forces into the country. In any case, instability in northern Lebanon is Syria's most immediate objective.

Lebanese politicians are growing nervous at the sight of a major Syrian troop buildup along the northern Lebanese-Syrian border. According to a Sept. 23 report from Lebanese daily al-Mustaqbal, approximately 10,000 Syrian troops have deployed along the northern border since the weekend. A source in the area told Stratfor that Syria has sent T-62 main battle tanks and mechanized infantry into the area, and that infantrymen have been spotted erecting tents near the border. With Tripoli less than 30 miles by road from Lebanon's northern border with Syria, Syrian forces are just a short drive from Lebanon's second-largest city.

Heightening Beirut's fears, the Syrian military conducted a major drill Sept. 22 along the border that was attended by Syrian President Bashar al Assad.

The Syrians are claiming that the military buildup is simply intended to crack down on rampant drug smuggling and criminal activity across the border. This is not a very convincing argument. An army does not deploy tanks to fight smugglers, and most smugglers along the Lebanese-Syrian border are active to the east, in the central part of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains -- not in the north, where the current buildup is occurring. Using 10,000 troops to curtail the activity of smugglers makes no tactical sense.
The Syrians have a special anti-smuggling force, the Hajjanah troops, which are a camel-mounted special border unit well-suited to the rugged mountain area between Syria and Lebanon. Moreover, Syrian authorities actually encourage smuggling into Syria, because it allows imported smuggled goods to be paid for in Syrian currency.

The Syrians have something much bigger in mind regarding their western neighbor. Ever since the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al Hariri that forced Syrian troops out of Lebanon, the Syrian regime has been slowly and steadily rebuilding its political, economic and security presence in Lebanon. Nearly three-and-a-half years after the Hariri assassination, Lebanon is once again swarming with Syrian intelligence officers carrying out Damascus' bid to reclaim hegemony over Lebanon.

Syria apparently intends to carry out this objective by first destabilizing the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, which Stratfor pointed to in a 2007 analysis as the next likely flashpoint between Syria and Saudi Arabia as they vie for control over Lebanon. Tripoli has witnessed a spate of attacks mainly between the Syrian-backed Syrian Nationalist and Socialist Party and the Saudi-backed Future Trend movement led by Hariri clansmen, who are essentially operating as proxies in a Syrian-Saudi battle for influence in Lebanon. Though these two Lebanese factions agreed to a tentative cease-fire in September, Syria is now planning to break this peace, creating instability and a justification for Syria to intervene militarily in northern Lebanon.

A reliable security source in Lebanon claims that a group of Syrian intelligence officers who entered northern Lebanon in the past week have been meeting with their local Lebanese agents in the Qubba sector of Tripoli. Their primary objective is to instigate clashes between the Sunnis and the Alawites that would bring instability to the Lebanese north in the weeks ahead.

Whether Syria simply intends to pressure Saudi Arabia to concede influence in Lebanon or actually intends to move forces into the country remains to be seen. But with Israeli-Syrian peace talks currently in flux because of political chaos in Israel, it appears that the Syrians are moving toward taking matters into their own hands to achieve the geopolitical objective of reasserting physical control over 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.