15 March 2010

* Lebanese Druze leader makes Syrian overture

One of Syria's harshest critics in Lebanon has now said his earlier statements were "improper" and called for a new page in relations between the two countries. A reconciliation between Walid Jumblatt, the influential leader of the Druse sect, and Damascus could boost Syria's role in Lebanese politics years after its troops were forced out of the country. For five years following the truck bomb assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Jumblatt was a stern critic of Syria. In re
cent months, however, he has broken with his former Western-backed allies.

His comments come as Syria is emerging from its isolation and is improving relations with Arab and Western states. Jumblatt's harshest verbal attack against Syrian President Bashar Assad came on Feb 14, 2007 in a speech marking Hariri's assassination. He told a crowd of tens of thousands of supporters that Assad was a "snake" and a "tyrant" and called for revenge against him. Many Lebanese blame Syria for the assassination, a charge Syria denies.

These comments were improper, unfamiliar and unsuited to political ethics," Jumblatt said in a live interview with Al-Jazeera satellite channel late Saturday. "I said, at a moment of anger, what is improper and illogical against President Bashar Assad. It was a moment of ultimate internal tension and division in Lebanon." "Is it possible for them to overcome this moment and open a new page?" he added.

There was no comment from Damascus but Syrian state-run newspapers, Al-Thawra, Tishrin and Al-Baath published Jumblatt's comments on their front pages yesterday. The comments might well results in a Syrian invitation to visit Damascus. A shrewd politician known for his shifting loyalties, Jumblatt walked out from the Western-backed coalition last year and said he will take a neutral stance in Lebanese politics.

Also in 2009, Jumblatt reconciled with Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, one of Syria's strongest allies in Lebanon. Nasrallah is said to be working for reconciliation between Jumblatt and Syria. Jumblatt, 60, was the main force behind the creation of a Western-backed alliance that led massive street protests to demand the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon following Hariri's assassination.

The Syrians pulled their army out of Lebanon in April 2005 ending nearly three decades of domination of their smaller neighbor. A longtime leftist and a one-time close Syrian ally, Jumblatt shifted after Hariri's assassination to the Western-backed camp after being a main beneficiary of Syrian goodwill when Damascus had the final say in Lebanese affairs for close to 30 years.

Since the 2005 break with Damascus, however, he became a staunch critic of Syria in Lebanon, calling for the overthrow of Assad's regime and blaming Syria for the 1977 killing of his father. Tensions between Jumblatt's Druse followers and his allies on one side and Nasrallah's Shiite militants erupted in street fighting in Beirut in May 2008, killing 81 people and nearly plunging Lebanon into another civil war. Since the clashes, Jumblatt has moderated his anti-Syrian rhetoric.


* New Druze Group Mocks Jumblat: Regaining Rationalism is a Blessing!

A new group calling itself the "Free Druze" has distributed a statement in the Shouf Mountains, criticizing Druze leader Walid Jumblat for underestimating the minds of fellow Druze citizens.
"We tell Jumblat, congratulations on regaining both your rationalism and political maturity," said the statement signed by the Free Druze.
"Congratulations on having the blessing of forgetfulness, the blessing of switching policies and moving arms from one shoulder to the other," added the statement carried by the daily Al-Akhbar on Monday.
Dubbing Jumblat as "ruler of the mountain" and "Caesar of the Shouf," the Free Druze criticized the PSP leader's "twisted policy."
"Your twisted policy is no longer a source of confidence," it said.
"The mask fell and Socialism is buried. Enough underestimating the minds of the Druze."
"We will not allow you, or your lawmakers or your men to use us to make a fortune in the name of the Druze," the statement threatened.


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.