11 November 2008

* Cozying up with Russia

Discussions claim that Saad al-Hariri, head of the Western-backed parliamentary majority in Lebanon, told Russia's Vremya Novostei on Nov. 10 that Beirut will start establishing contact with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Georgia's two Russian-backed separatist republics, and consider recognizing the two republics. Frustrated with the United States' reluctance to provide the Lebanese military with heavy weaponry, al-Hariri is looking to start a bidding war between the United States and Russia.

Saad al-Hariri, the leader of Lebanon's Western-backed parliamentary majority, told Russian daily Vremya Novostei on Nov. 10 that Lebanon would start establishing contact with the Russian-backed Georgian separatist republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and that the issue of recognizing the two republics would be decided at the top level of the Lebanese government. The Russian report quoting al-Hariri comes after the young Lebanese leader traveled to Moscow and met with top Russian leaders, including Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Since the Russo-Georgian war in August, the only country (besides Russia) to have recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia is Nicaragua, whose regime was looking to rekindle a tight relationship with Moscow from the Soviet days. The rest of the world, meanwhile, has kept quiet on the subject, either out of opposition to Russia's actions or to avoid stirring up separatist rebellions in their own territory.
It might seem a bit odd, then, that Lebanon -- a severely communally fragmented country whose government is now a proclaimed ally of the United States -- is talking about recognizing these two republics. Al-Hariri's motives are best explained by his desire to undermine Syrian influence in Lebanon by empowering his country's feeble military.
Al-Hariri belongs to the anti-Syrian March 14 camp in Lebanon. His father, former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, was killed in a massive car bomb attack in February 2005 that ignited a popular revolution and led to the expunging of Syrian troops from Lebanon that spring. Since then, the Syrian regime has steadily rebuilt its presence in Lebanon with the help of its extensive intelligence apparatus, threatening to once again bring Beirut under its control. Fears of a Syrian return to Lebanon have only been compounded in recent weeks as Syria has amassed forces along its border with Lebanon, ostensibly to combat a terrorism threat coming from northern Lebanon.
In al-Hariri's mind, the only way to break Lebanon free of foreign intervention is to get the country to stand on its own feet, beginning with building a functional military. Lebanon is an artificially united country of deeply divided Sunni, Shia, Druze and Maronite Christian factions. It is a country where militias reign supreme and where civil war is an all too recent memory. As a former protectorate of the French, Lebanon has an army that was designed to remain weak in order to keep the country from getting ensnared in wider regional conflicts. As a result, militias like Hezbollah had room to become the most professional and experienced fighting forces in the country. Meanwhile, the Lebanese military, as it stands today, sorely lacks in coordination, unity, professionalism, skill, experience, weaponry and, most of all, the will to fight effectively against the myriad militant groups operating in Palestinian refugee camps, much less against large militias like Hezbollah or
invading armies coming from Syria or Israel.
Since 2006, when a Western-backed parliamentary majority came into power in Beirut, the United States has made a concerted effort to rebuild the Lebanese armed forces with about $400 million in military aid to Lebanon, making the country the second-largest per capita recipient of U.S. foreign military financing after Israel. The goals of this military aid were to counter Syrian ambitions to dominate Lebanon and to deprive Hezbollah of its status as the sole resistance force in the country. Most of the aid has come in the form of vehicles for internal security forces, assault rifles, automatic grenade launchers, anti-tank weapons, advanced sniper weapons systems, urban warfare bunker weapons, Humvees and spare helicopter parts. But the United States has for the most part refrained from giving the Lebanese heavy weaponry, particularly when it comes to modernizing the Lebanese air force. Such military aid would not only upset Washington's delicate alliance with Israel, but it wo
uld also raise the risk of having advanced weaponry fall into the hands of Hezbollah and other surrogate forces in the country. The extent of collusion between the military and Hezbollah and its sympathizers was most clearly illustrated in the 2006 conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, when the militant group had access to Lebanese military radar stations that it used to sink an Israeli naval vessel.
Frustrated with the United States' refusal to pony up more military goodies, al-Hariri is now attempting to start a bidding war between Moscow and Washington. During al-Hariri's trip to Moscow, he announced that Russia would sell Lebanon heavy weaponry, including tanks and artillery equipment, and that these arms deals would be discussed when Lebanese Defense Minister Elias Murr travels to Moscow later in November or in early December. To repay the potential favor, al-Hariri -- according to political sources in Beirut -- is pushing his colleagues in the Lebanese leadership to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia as a political gesture to the Kremlin. Recognition by a country as small and deeply fragmented as Lebanon is only worth so much, but it would be a symbolic gesture the Russians would crave, and trumpet, nonetheless.
This recognition would not come without high risks, however. Lebanon's multiple factions are already severely split along geographic lines. Throwing support behind two small Georgian separatist regions could only enflame already deeply entrenched separatist sentiment in a country that has barely been able to hold itself together since independence. Moreover, al-Hariri's faction receives heavy backing from Saudi Arabia and consults frequently with Riyadh on major political decisions. If al-Hariri's trip to Moscow were sanctioned by the Saudis, al-Hariri's cozying up to the Kremlin could end up causing friction between Washington and Riyadh.
Russia is looking for another space in the Middle East in which to meddle with U.S. interests. Both Putin and Lavrov expressed strong support for the Lebanese government during al-Hariri's visit, with Lavrov stating explicitly that Russia was against "foreign interference" in Lebanon's domestic affairs -- a direct swipe at the Syrians. A falling out of sorts might be taking place between Soviet-era allies Moscow and Damascus, with Russia now more or less convinced that Syria has made up its mind to pursue a negotiated peace settlement with Israel and re-establish ties with the United States. A great deal of distrust exists between the Russians and the Syrians, and Moscow is well aware of Syria's past maneuvers to grab Washington's attention simply by talking to the Kremlin. In trying to firm up ties with Lebanon's anti-Syrian faction, the Russians are doing their part to complicate Syria's ongoing negotiations with the Americans and the Israelis, while at the same time workin
g to increase their leverage over Damascus.
Al-Hariri is playing a risky game by cozying up to the Russians, but while Washington is in the midst of a major political transition, the Russians have the time and space to shore up their influence in Beirut. The extent to which Syrian-Russian relations have apparently suffered should become clearer when the Lebanese defense minister makes his upcoming trip to Russia. After all, only statements have been thrown out and no concrete deals have been made. If Russia actually follows through with offers to supply the Lebanese military with heavy weaponry, and if Beirut actually takes the symbolic step of recognizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the United States, Syria and Israel will have to step up their diplomatic game in the Levant.


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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.