31 May 2009

* The Economics of a Hizballah Win

Hizballah officials have reportedly been meeting with IMF officials before the June 7 polls to make sure that Lebanon will continue receive IMF support in the event of a Hizballah win.  IMF officials have confirmed the report.

The Hizballah-led opposition (to the Western-backed March 14 coalition) is considered by many to be favored in their effort to pick up enough parliamentary seats for a slim controlling majority.

The United States is particularly keen on seeing March 14 prevail, sending both the Vice President and the Secretary of State to Lebanon in the last month to voice support.  The United States provides a lot of money in aid to Lebanon, especially military aid.
Lebanon receives aid money from many sources, including from the Gulf States and the European Union. Lebanon has also been receiving a steadily increasing amount from private money from overseas, as investors pour money into banks and development deals there.
All of this begs the question off what happens to this all money if Hizballah and its allies wins June 7?

This scenario would put some people in a curious position. For the United States the thought of giving money, particularly military aid, to a Hizballah-led government is unpleasant. The United States has a close relationship with Israel, a nation Hizballah seeks to destroy as one of their core goals. Also, there are many in Washington who have not forgotten the embassy and Marine barracks bombings in the 1980’s, which were allegedly perpetrated by Hizballah.
So would the US cut off and turn its back on strategically important Lebanon if Hizballah wins? Its tough to say. It didn’t go so well when the US did it to Hamas, when they were democratically elected in Palestine. Doing so with Lebanon would be a major debacle, showing the world once again that the United States only supports democracy when its suits their interests.

It will be interesting to see how they handle it, if it happens. Last week, Joe Biden said in a paper-thinly veiled threat that US support is contingent on the election results, but words like that will mean little when the time comes.

It is assured that Israel will apply whatever pressure it can to stoke the fires of hostility between the United States and a Hizballah-led Lebanon.

But if the West  does turn its back on Lebanon in such an event, there will be a vacuum of aid money to be filled.  In this case, Iran would probably step in some,  which would only increase its influence in Lebanon. This definitely wouldn’t make Israel or the United States more comfortable, let alone Saudi Arabia, Egypt or the Gulf States, all of which are concerned with the steady growth of Iranian power.
If the US rejects Lebanon in this case the way it did to Hamas, they would just be throwing Lebanon to Iran and Syria.  This probably won’t happen. The Obama administration has been beating the drums of reconciliation with Iran and Syria (much to the chagrin of Israel) and it seems possible they could change their tune with Hizballah. If Obama could reach some sort of detente with the leading Shiite powers, he could really make hay with his Middle Eastern agenda.

So it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for the United States if Hizballah won. It’s not as though Hizballah can send the Lebanese Armed Forces into Israel the minute they get into power. If Hizballah wins, they will have to deal with the new reality that in the event of hostilities, Israel will now view Lebanon as the agressor, instead of just the Hizballah. This puts the whole country at risk, not just southern Lebanon and South Beirut.  Hopefully Hizballah will tread lightly.

Another thing to consider is private investment. Lebanon hasn’t passed through the global economic turmoil unscathed, but its in good shape. Development deals continue to be made and construction projects are underway all over Beirut. And money continues to flow into the country’s strong banking sector. Lebanon has strict controls in place for its banks, which didn’t not allow for much investment in the sub prime markets.

So for now, the investment money continues to come in. Some may be holding off until after the election to decide on investing. If March 14 wins, it will likely be business as usual. But what would a Hizballah led government hold for the economy? Probably not too much different from what is there now. No one wants to shake up the stable banking sector. Hizballah voters do business like the rest of the people in Lebanon. As long as the country did not dissolve into civil war or fall under an attack from Israel, things would likely proceed like they did before June 7th.  Also, Hizballah has allied itself with the Free Patriotic Movement led by Christian Michel Aoun, which supports laissez faire free market economics.
From whichever sect, people in Lebanon are interested in doing business and making money. The nature of doing business in Lebanon probably won’t change, just the context of it. In a country with very few natural resources, it has done relatively well for itself and that is unlikely to change if Hizballah picks up a few seats in parliament.
So in the event June 7 doesn’t go the way the West would like it to, the US will be in an interesting situation. The EU and the IMF have already prepared for this eventuality by taking meetings with Hizballah officials. But the US has done no such thing. Will the US follow the same path that it did with Hamas? That didn’t exactly turn out so well, but then again it was also the policy of the Bush administration.

Or  will the US defy Israel and and continue to support Lebanon? The Obama administration has demonsrated that it will not be as close with Israel as past administrations,  but how far does that go? Its one thing to ask Israel to take down some settlement in the West Bank, its is quite another to make peace with a group that is Israel’s sworn enemy.
Of course, if Hizballah doesn’t pick up the seats next Sunday all of this will be moot. But if they do, there will be some interesting choices to be made. It looks like Europe will deal with whoever win, and as long as things are peaceful, so will investors. The big question is what will the United States do. On one side, it has and old and powerful ally that may be more trouble than its worth. On the other, it has the possibility of making peace with old enemies. It will be interesting to see how the US proceeds.

(PVibert )

30 May 2009

* Lebanon Confirms Three Swine Flu Cases

Lebanon's Minister of Health Mohammad Khalifeh attends a news conference at the Ministry of Health in Beirut May 30, 2009. Lebanon has identified its first confirmed three cases of the new H1N1 flu.


26 May 2009

* حريريو سيدني زودوا ببطاقات سفر غير مدفوعة وشغب في المطار

وصلوا الى مطار سيدني الدولي للإنتقال منه الى بيروت على متن طائرة تابعة لشركة الإتحاد، لكن عدداً لا يستهان به من ركاب الطائرة، وهم من اللبنانيين، منع من الصعود اليها على رغم حمله بطاقات سفر إلكترونية، وعند الإستفسار جاء الجواب أن البطاقات الإلكترونية ملغاة لأن ثمنها لم يدفع لمكتب السفريات الأمر الذي أحدث اعمال شغب في المطار الإسترالي وحتى داخل الطائرة المذكورة.
الفوضى العارمة داخل المطار فرضت تدخلاً سريعاً من الشرطة الفدرالية التي اوقفت على الفور مسافراً من آل حموي بسبب إثارته الشغب والتحريض عليه.
حقيقة الأمر أن هؤلاء اللبنانيين وقعوا ضحية تيار المستقبل الذي أرسل لهم مخاتيره الى الخارج لإصدار بطاقات الهوية ثم أرسل لهم عبر الإنترنت بطاقات سفر إلكترونية للقدوم الى لبنان والإقتراع لمصلحة فريقه السياسي.
وبحسب المعلومات المتوافرة فقد تم حجز حوالى اربعمئة وسبعين بطاقة سفربواسطة مكتب سفريات orient travel لصاحبه محمد الصديق الذي يملك فرعين: الأول في طرابلس والثاني في أستراليا، وسحبت هذه البطاقات من وكالة سفر في مدينة gosford، القريبة من سيدني، وتحمل إسم advanced travel وصاحبها باكستاني الجنسية.
مصادر استرالية مطلعة كشفت لل otv أن مسؤول الإنتشار في تيار المستقبل كلف المسؤول الإعلامي للمستقبل في سيدني فؤاد الحاج تسديد مبلغ لا يستهان به ككلفة للعملية المذكورة لكن الاموال لم تصل وأختفى فؤاد الحاج.
تدخلت الشرطة الفدرالية على الفور ودهمت مكتب تيار المستقبل في سيدني بحثاُ عن الحاج وصادرت كل موجوداته مقفلة إياه بالشريط اللاصق القانوني.
وفي إطار البحث عن مسؤول الإعلام في تيار الحريري أوقفت طائرة آتية من سيدني في سينغافورة لكن الحاج لم يكن على متنها.
ناطق بإسم الشرطة الفدرالية الإسترالية اكّد أن التحقيق جارٍ كاشفاً عن إمكان مطالبة السلطات اللبنانية بالمبلغ المفقود وكذلك بمعلومات عن الشخص المطلوب المتواري عن الأنظار.


24 May 2009

* Breakthrough Tribunal Investigation - update1

 أكدت الناطقة باسم المحكمة الخاصة بلبنان لمحاكمة المشبوهين في اغتيال رئيس الوزراء اللبناني الاسبق رفيق الحريري ان المحكمة "لا تعرف من اين جاءت" مجلة "دير شبيغل" الالمانية بمعلوماتها عن تورط حزب الله في الجريمة.
وقالت الناطقة باسم مدعي المحكمة لوكالة فرانس برس "لا نعرف من اين جاءوا بهذه القصة". واضافت ان "مكتب المدعي لا يصدر اي تعليق على القضايا المتعلقة بالجوانب العملانية للتحقيق".

* Breakthrough Tribunal Investigation (Hariri)

The Spiegel report was not translated fully by other Lebanese  magazines and newspapers. It is linked below for reference:

The United Nations special tribunal investigating the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri has reached surprising new conclusions -- and it is keeping them secret. According to information obtained by SPIEGEL, investigators now believe Hezbollah was behind the Hariri murder.
It was an act of virtually Shakespearean dimensions, a family tragedy involving murder and suicide, contrived and real tears -- and a good deal of big-time politics.

Part 1: New Evidence Points to Hezbollah in Hariri Murder 
On February 14, 2005, Valentine's Day, at 12:56 p.m., a massive bomb exploded in front of the Hotel St. Georges in Beirut, just as the motorcade of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri passed by. The explosives ripped a crater two meters deep into the street, and the blast destroyed the local branch of Britain's HSBC Bank. Body parts were hurled as far as the roofs of surrounding buildings. Twenty-three people died in the explosion and ensuing inferno, including Hariri, his bodyguards and passersby.

The shock waves quickly spread across the Middle East. Why did Hariri have to die? Who carried out the attack and who was behind it? What did they hope to achieve politically?
The Hariri assassination has been the source of wild speculation ever since. Was it the work of terrorist organization al-Qaida, angered by Hariri's close ties to the Saudi royal family? Or of the Israelis, as part of their constant efforts to weaken neighboring Lebanon? Or the Iranians, who hated secularist Hariri? 

 At the time of the attack, it was known that Hariri, a billionaire construction magnate who was responsible for the reconstruction of the Lebanese capital after decades of civil war, wanted to reenter politics. It was also known that he had had a falling out with Syrian President Bashar Assad after demanding the withdrawal of Syrian occupation forces from his native Lebanon. As a result, the prime suspects in the murder were the powerful Syrian military and intelligence agency, as well as their Lebanese henchmen. The pressure on Damascus came at an opportune time for the US government. Then-President George W. Bush had placed Syria on his list of rogue states and wanted to isolate the regime internationally.
In late 2005, an investigation team approved by the United Nations and headed by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis found, after seven months of research, that Syrian security forces and high-ranking Lebanese officials were in fact responsible for the Hariri murder. Four suspects were arrested. But the smoking gun, the final piece of evidence, was not found. The pace of the investigation stalled under Mehlis's Belgian successor, Serge Brammertz.
The establishment of a UN special tribunal was intended to provide certainty. It began its work on March 1, 2009. The tribunal, headquartered in the town of Leidschendam in the Netherlands, has a budget of more than €40 million ($56 million) for the first year alone, with the UN paying 51 percent and Beirut 49 percent of the cost. It has an initial mandate for three years, and the most severe sentence it can impose is life in prison. Canadian Daniel Bellemare, 57, was appointed to head the tribunal. Four of the 11 judges are Lebanese, whose identities have been kept secret, for security reasons.
As its first official act, the tribunal ordered the release, in early April, of the four men Mehlis had had arrested. By then, they had already spent more than three years sitting in a Lebanese prison. Since then, it has been deathly quiet in Leidschendam, as if the investigation had just begun and there were nothing to say.

 But now there are signs that the investigation has yielded new and explosive results. SPIEGEL has learned from sources close to the tribunal and verified by examining internal documents, that the Hariri case is about to take a sensational turn. Intensive investigations in Lebanon are all pointing to a new conclusion: that it was not the Syrians, but instead special forces of the Lebanese Shiite organization Hezbollah ("Party of God") that planned and executed the diabolical attack. Tribunal chief prosecutor Bellemare and his judges apparently want to hold back this information, of which they been aware for about a month. What are they afraid of?
According to the detailed information provided by the SPIEGEL source, the fact that the case may have been "cracked" is the result of a mixture of serendipity à la Sherlock Holmes and the state-of-the-art technology used by cyber detectives. In months of painstaking work, a secretly operating special unit of the Lebanese security forces, headed by intelligence expert Captain Wissam Eid, filtered out the numbers of mobile phones that could be pinpointed to the area surrounding Hariri on the days leading up to the attack and on the date of the murder itself. The investigators referred to these mobile phones as the "first circle of hell."
Captain Eid's team eventually identified eight mobile phones, all of which had been purchased on the same day in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli. They were activated six weeks before the assassination, and they were used exclusively for communication among their users and -- with the exception of one case -- were no longer used after the attack. They were apparently tools of the hit team that carried out the terrorist attack.
But there was also a "second circle of hell," a network of about 20 mobile phones that were identified as being in proximity to the first eight phones noticeably often. According to the Lebanese security forces, all of the numbers involved apparently belong to the "operational arm" of Hezbollah, which maintains a militia in Lebanon that is more powerful than the regular Lebanese army. While part of the Party of God acts like a normal political organization, participating in democratic elections and appointing cabinet ministers, the other part uses less savory tactics, such as abductions near the Israeli border and terrorist attacks, such those committed against Jewish facilities in South America in 2002 and 2004.
The whereabouts of the two Beirut groups of mobile phone users coincided again and again, and they were sometimes located near the site of the attack. The romantic attachment of one of the terrorists led the cyber-detectives directly to one of the main suspects. He committed the unbelievable indiscretion of calling his girlfriend from one of the "hot" phones. It only happened once, but it was enough to identify the man. He is believed to be Abd al-Majid Ghamlush, from the town of Rumin, a Hezbollah member who had completed training course in Iran. Ghamlush was also identified as the buyer of the mobile phones. He has since disappeared, and perhaps is no longer alive.

Part 2: Revelations Will Likely Harm Hezbollah

Ghamlush's recklessness led investigators to the man they now suspect was the mastermind of the terrorist attack: Hajj Salim, 45. A southern Lebanese from Nabatiyah, Salim is considered to be the commander of the "military" wing of Hezbollah and lives in South Beirut, a Shiite stronghold. Salim's secret "Special Operational Unit" reports directly to Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, 48.

 Imad Mughniyah, one of the world's most wanted terrorists, ran the unit until Feb. 12, 2008, when he was killed in an attack in Damascus, presumably by Israeli intelligence. Since then, Salim has largely assumed the duties of his notorious predecessor, with Mughniyah's brother-in-law, Mustafa Badr al-Din, serving as his deputy. The two men report only to their superior, and to General Kassim Sulaimani, their contact in Tehran. The Iranians, the principal financiers of the military Lebanese "Party of God," have repressed the Syrians' influence.
The deeper the investigators in Beirut penetrated into the case, the clearer the picture became, according to the SPIEGEL source. They have apparently discovered which Hezbollah member obtained the small Mitsubishi truck used in the attack. They have also been able to trace the origins of the explosives, more than 1,000 kilograms of TNT, C4 and hexogen.
The Lebanese chief investigator and true hero of the story didn't live to witness many of the recent successes in the investigation. Captain Eid, 31, was killed in a terrorist attack in the Beirut suburb of Hasmiyah on Jan. 25, 2008. The attack, in which three other people were also killed, was apparently intended to slow down the investigation. And, once again, there was evidence of involvement by the Hezbollah commando unit, just as there has been in each of more than a dozen attacks against prominent Lebanese in the last four years.
This leaves the question of motive unanswered. Many had an interest in Hariri's death. Why should Hezbollah -- or its backers in Iran -- be responsible?
Hariri's growing popularity could have been a thorn in the side of Lebanese Shiite leader Nasrallah. In 2005, the billionaire began to outstrip the revolutionary leader in terms of popularity. Besides, he stood for everything the fanatical and spartan Hezbollah leader hated: close ties to the West and a prominent position among moderate Arab heads of state, an opulent lifestyle, and membership in the competing Sunni faith. Hariri was, in a sense, the alternative to Nasrallah.

Whether Lebanon has developed in the direction the Hezbollah leader apparently imagined seems doubtful. Immediately after the spectacular terrorist attack on Valentine's Day in 2005, a wave of sympathy for the murdered politician swept across the country. The so-called "cedar revolution" brought a pro-Western government to power, and the son of the murdered man emerged as the most important party leader and strongest figure operating in the background. Saad al-Hariri, 39, could have become prime minister of Lebanon long ago -- if he were willing to accept the risks and felt sufficiently qualified to hold office. After the Hariri murder, the Syrian occupation force left the country in response to international and domestic Lebanese pressure.
But not everything has gone wrong from Hezbollah's standpoint. In July 2006, Nasrallah, by kidnapping Israeli soldiers, provoked Israel to launch a war against Lebanon. Hezbollah defied the superior military power, solidifying its image as a resistance movement in large parts of the Arab world. If there were democratic opinion polls in the Middle East, Nasrallah would probably be voted the most popular leader. The highly anticipated June 7 elections will demonstrate whether the Lebanese will allow Nasrallah to radicalize them again. Once again, he is entering into the election campaign in a dual role. He is both the secretary-general of the "Party of God," represented in the parliament since 1992, and the head of Hezbollah's militia, part of a state within a state that makes its own laws.

 Hezbollah currently holds 14 of 128 seats in parliament, a number that is expected to rise. Some even believe that dramatic gains are possible for Hezbollah, although landslide-like changes in the Lebanese parliamentary system are relatively unlikely. A system of religious proportionality ensures, with list alliances arranged in advance, that about two-thirds of the seats in parliament are assigned before an election. In the cedar state, a Sunni must always be prime minister, while the Shiites are entitled to the office of speaker of parliament and the Christians the relatively unimportant office of the president.
Hezbollah has not managed to upset this system, adopted decades ago, even though it objectively puts its clientele at a disadvantage. As a result of differences in birthrates, there are now far more Shiites than Sunnis or Christians in Lebanon. Some say that Nasrallah isn't even interested in securing power through elections, and that the "Party of God" would be satisfied with a modest share of the government. By not taking on too much government responsibility, Hezbollah would not be forced to dissolve its militias and make significant changes to its ideology of resistance.
The revelations about the alleged orchestrators of the Hariri murder will likely harm Hezbollah. Large segments of the population are weary of internal conflicts and are anxious for reconciliation. The leader of the movement, which, despite its formal recognition of the democratic rules of the game, remains on the US's list of terrorist organizations, probably anticipates forthcoming problems with the UN tribunal. In a speech in Beirut, Nasrallah spoke of the tribunal's "conspiratorial intentions."
The revelations are likely to be just as unwelcome in Tehran, which sees itself confronted, once again, with the charge of exporting terrorism. Damascus's view of the situation could be more mixed. Although the Syrian government is not being declared free of the suspicion of involvement, at least President Assad is no longer in the line of fire. Hardly anything suggests anymore that he was personally aware of the murder plot or even ordered the killing.
One can only speculate over the reasons why the Hariri tribunal is holding back its new information about the assassination. Perhaps the investigators in the Netherlands fear that it could stir up the situation in Lebanon. On Friday evening, the press office in Leidschendam responded tersely to a written inquiry from SPIEGEL, noting that it could not comment on "operational details."

 Detlev Mehlis, 60, the German senior prosecutor and former UN chief investigator, has his own set of concerns. He performed his investigation to the best of his knowledge and belief, questioning more than 500 witnesses, and now he must put up with the accusation of having focused his attention too heavily on Syrian leads. The UN tribunal's order to release the generals who were arrested at his specific request is, at any rate, a serious blow to the German prosecutor.
One of the four, Jamal al-Sayyid, the former Lebanese general security director, has even filed a suit against Mehlis in France for "manipulated investigations." In media interviews, such as an interview with the Al-Jazeera Arab television network last week, Sayyid has even taken his allegations a step further, accusing German police commissioner Gerhard Lehmann, Mehlis's assistant in the Beirut investigations, of blackmail.
Sayyid claims that Lehmann, a member of Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) proposed a deal with the Syrian president to the Lebanese man. Under the alleged arrangement, Assad would identify the person responsible for the Hariri killing and convince him to commit suicide, and then the case would be closed. According to Sayyid, the authorities in Beirut made "unethical proposals, as well as threats," and he claims that he has recordings of the incriminating conversations.
Mehlis denies all accusations. Lehmann, now working on a new assignment in Saudi Arabia, was unavailable for comment. But the spotlight-loving Jamil al-Sayyid could soon be embarking on a new career. He is under consideration for the post of Lebanon's next justice minister.

(translation from German/spiegel)

22 May 2009

* Spy Rings again


Lebanese soldiers patrol an area in Beirut, 2008. Lebanon has filed a complaint to the United Nations over alleged Israeli spy networks operating in Lebanon amid a crackdown on the espionage rings.


* Suzanne Tamim (update on ruling)

An Egyptian tycoon and an ex-cop hitman have been sentenced to death for the murder last year of the businessman's former lover, Lebanese pop diva Suzanne Tamim. Mustafa, a stalwart of Egypt's ruling National Democratic Party, was found guilty on Thursday of paying the hitman two million dollars to cut the throat of 30-year-old Tamim at her luxury flat in Dubai last July.

Egyptian construction magnate Hesham Talaat Moustafa leaves the court after hearing his sentence in Cairo May 21, 2009. Moustafa was sentenced to death on Thursday for the murder of Lebanese singer Suzanne Tamim in Dubai, court sources says.

The son and daughter of Hesham Talaat Moustafa walk across a street after Moustafa's trial in Cairo May 21, 2009.

Ex- Egyptian policeman Mohsen al-Sukkari during his trial at a court in Cairo in 2008 for the murder Lebanese singer Suzanne Tamim. A Cairo court sentenced al-Sukkari and an Egyptian tycoon to death for the murder in Dubai last year.

Retired Egyptian policeman Mohsen al-Sukkari sits in the dock at a Cairo court. The court on Thursday sentenced Egyptian tycoon Hisham Talaat Mustafa and al-Sukkari to death for the murder in Dubai last year of the businessman's former lover, Lebanese pop diva Suzanne Tamim.


09 May 2009

* Possible Conflict: Israel-Lebanon?

Several countries involved in the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) mission have notified the Lebanese government of their plans to reduce and withdraw their contingents by the end of May....

The Lebanese government reportedly has requested that these countries maintain their troop levels until the end of June, after Lebanon holds parliamentary elections.

UNIFIL is 15,000-strong multinational force tasked with keeping Hezbollah activity in southern Lebanon in check in tandem with the Lebanese army. The force was created after Israel invaded Lebanon in 1978. Following the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah summer confrontation, the U.N. Security Council extended UNIFIL's mandate to include helping maintain a cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah along the southern Lebanese border.

.... the UNIFIL presence in southern Lebanon would not serve as an effective buffer between Israel and Hezbollah. Early on, UNIFIL stopped doing thorough searches for weapons depots, and any violations it reported to the Lebanese army -- which includes a large number of Shia sympathetic to Hezbollah -- were often ignored. Consequently, Hezbollah managed to rebuild its fortifications in the south and to the north of Litani River in the Bekaa Valley in preparation for another military confrontation with Israel Defense Forces (IDF). In essence, UNIFIL acted as a human shield for Hezbollah to continue its preparations and complicate any Israeli attack plans, given that chances international forces would be caught in the fray would be high.

According an UNIFIL source, the total force is expected to drop to around 5,000 troops. The reduction of UNIFIL forces could be a sign of advanced warning from Israel to UNIFIL host countries of Israeli preparations for an operation against Hezbollah. Such an operation would be influenced by Israel's long-standing desire to clip Iran's wings in Lebanon, particularly
as the Hezbollah-led coalition is expected to make a strong performance in upcoming parliamentary elections at the expense of its rivals in the now-deeply fractured March 14 coalition. 

.... For now, this development serves as guidance for our analytic team to closely monitor Hezbollah and IDF activities, including training exercises, changes in deployments, tunnel construction and other signs that could indicate an impending conflict.


07 May 2009

- BMW GINA Light Visionary Model Concept Car

* Syria Increases Its Intelligence Presence

Syria's intelligence presence in the southern Lebanese coastal city of Sidon has increased significantly inrecent weeks. According to a source, the influx of Syrian agents is part of a campaign by the Syrian intelligence directorate inside Lebanon to re-establish a Syrian foothold in southern Lebanon.

A Syrian intelligence headquarters reportedly has been set up near Al Quds Square in Sidon, which has become the center of an electronically jammed area that covers about 300 yards, according to locals. The Syrians are relying heavily on their allies in the pro-Damascus Syrian Nationalist and Socialist Party in Lebanon for logistical support in renting apartments and other basic necessities for these agents. Many of these Syrian agents are arriving in the city as tourists and have recruited a number of informers posing as laborers and street vendors.

It appears that the Syrians are beefing up their presence in the predominantly Sunni areas of the city, particularly near the strongholds of Sunni Islamist movements. The Ain al-Hilweh camp near Sidon is a breeding ground for an array of Islamist militant groups, the bulk of which are on the payroll of Syrian intelligence. Hezbollah, which also has a large presence in the area, is alarmed by the recent Syrian arrivals and believes the Syrians are attempting to encroach on their territory to keep the group contained. 

Relations between Damascus and Hezbollah have become severely strained, particularly since the February 2008 assassination of Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyah. Though Syria and Hezbollah maintain a close working relationship, the Shiite group has become more and more distrustful of Damascus' intentions toward the group.

The Syrian agents in Sidon privately have tried to reassure Hezbollah by telling the group that their main reason for increasing their presence in the city is to support Nasserite Popular Movement parliament member Osama Saad, who is up against Prime Minister Fouad Siniora for one of Sidon's electoral seats in upcoming June parliamentary elections. Hezbollah sources, however, believe Damascus is using the elections as a cover to re-establish its presence in southern Lebanon. Lebanese sources in Sunni Islamist movements in Beirut, Tripoli and Iqlim al-Kharroub have also reported a noticeable rise in the Syrian presence in these cities.

Syria is re-asserting itself aggressively in Lebanon, a country deemed vital to Syrian national interests. The Syrian regime has links to a wide variety of groups in the country -- from Shiite Hezbollah to Sunni Salafist groups -- but it is attempting to entertain Turkish-mediated reconciliation talks with the West and Israel on the side at the same time. Syrian intentions for groups like Hezbollah are still murky as Damascus continues its balancing act in dealing with these various players, but it is abundantly clear that the Syrians are pursuing an uncompromising agenda to reclaim hegemony in Lebanon.


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.