07 May 2009

* 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.


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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.