Thursday, August 30, 2007

Terrorists - Online and Offline

I'm in a helluva rush this morning so I leave you with two items sure to make your stomach turn.

First, our francophone readers are encouraged to check out French Eagle's latest post in which he reveals some insider information on the battles inside Nahr el Bared. For those non-french readers, here is a translated quip from the post:
They left booby-trapped TVs and radios on, so that when soldiers went to turn them off, they would explode... They also played recordings of crying babies, which lured soldiers into buildings and rooms which would then be detonated.

What is riling the soldiers most these days, however, is the fact that some of the wives of militants - now evacuated - were themselves fighters alongside their husbands...they should be tried as accomplices and murderers alongside their husbands.
Our Arabic and English readers can check out another stomach turning piece now making the turns on news services and blogs, that of an online game depicting and encouraging an attack against our government house, the Saraya, and the murder of Lebanese troops, politicians, and citizens. It is a disgusting disgrace - and most surely a violation of the law. Revelation of the online game comes on the heals of Hizballah's release of the second edition of its computer game depicting attacks against Israeli troops. Is there a connection? Most likely.

Update 1:

Naharnet has just reported that
Prosecutor General Saeed Mirza on Thursday ordered police to launch an investigation into a video game about the storming of Premier Fouad Saniora's government compound and the killing of all the ministers.
The website quoted the Lebanese daily As-Safir which originally reported details surrounding the game. Ahead of reading the article I provided further commentary on the issue in this post's comments section.

Naharnet also provides its own commentary and correlations in the article:
The pro-opposition newspaper As-Safir carried an exclusive report on the game Wednesday noting that it was designed in France by a Lebanese citizen who was identified by the code name of Ziad al-Hajj.

The Hizbullah-led opposition has erected scores of tents in Beirut's Riyadh al-Solh square, a few meters off the government compound since Dec. 1 with the declared objective of toppling the Saniora government.

There has been a chain of rumors about alleged plans by the opposition to storm the government compound, fenced in bared wire and protected by tanks and three army and police battalions.

The game, according to as-Safir is made up of three chapters, the first centers on killing all the "militias" that guard the compound, in reference to the regular forces.

The second phase of the video battle starts in the lobby where attackers discover tunnels leading to the U.S. embassy in suburban awkar, 17 kilometers north of Beirut.

Hizbullah leader Sayed Hassan Nasralla has termed the Saniora government "The Feltman Cabinet" in reference to the U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Jeffrey Feltman, whom he accuses of controlling the March 14 Majority that backs the government.

Attackers also fight a battle with "militiamen" in the lobby who are allegedly supervised by Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblat, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea and al-Moustaqbal Movement leader Saad Hariri, as well as Saniora himself.

The last and third chapter of the "game" involves the storming of the main hall where Saniora is presiding over a meeting of his cabinet and the killing of "all the traitors and thieves," in reference to the premiere and his ministers.

The game ends with the phrase: "Game over, congratulations" when the player succeeds in "liquidating" all those in the government compound, the report noted.

Hajj was quoted as saying he designed the game to "express the wishes of many Lebanese" in storming the government compound. "I gave them what they want."

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Riding the Wave

For a Kingdom with a reputation for religiously adhering to a policy of secrecy, especially when dealing with matters of interest to the general "Arab-Islamic" masses, the recent outbursts of its government-run dailies against another "Arab-Islamic" country marked a serious escalation in the Syrian-sideshow of the Sunni-Shiite conflict rippling through the region.

In Lebanon, where such regional ripples have a tendency to be translated into waves, the escalation could have dangerous repercussions at the security and political levels. Waves which could see the precipitation of a Syrian-backed strategy to bring the frothing Sunni-Shiite conflict up from under the guise of Christian-assassination-targeting which the regime in Damascus has ‘successfully’ pursued for nearly three (or thirty) years.

Already the waters of that dismal prospect were stirred earlier this year – perhaps in building towards this scenario – when two Sunnis, a young man and child, were kidnapped and brutally executed by members of a Hizballah-supportive Shiite family [it is alleged]. That tragedy was compounded with the assassination of Walid Eido – the first Sunni public figure to be targeted for assassination since February 14th, when former PM Rafic Hariri was killed by an explosion while riding in a convoy.

Now, with the emergence of a direct threat against the representative of the most influential Sunni country in the world, along with his Emirati counterpart – both of whom have played a critical role is supporting the efforts of Lebanon’s anti-Syrian parliamentary majority – the waters may be boiling!

Writing in the Lebanese daily, An-Nahar, Lebanese MP Ghassan Tueni (general manager of the paper and father of assassinated MP Gebran Tueni) related the threat to Syria’s attempts to install a "Syrian President for the Republic of Lebanon", stating:
"Does the dear sisterly Syria believe that she can impose its return on us, though not victorious, preceded by a campaign of terror, though upgraded this time by threatening to assassinate the Saudi ambassador?"
And quite an upgrade it would be, certainly one too ambitious to be undertaken by a country of Syria’s stature alone. With the international tribunal now firmly secured in the grasp of a UNSC Chapter 7 mandate, there is actually not much that a Syrian President for our dear Republic can do to address the issue weighing most heavily on the Syrian regime’s minds – if not conscience.

No, if there is in fact a violently malevolent push for the presidency being implemented – as there surely is – then it is a push in favor of a president who can guarantee a continuation of the infiltration and subversion enjoyed not just by Syria, but by its chief ally – and the criminal organization underwritten by that alliance.

With the Presidential election process due to start less than one month from today, and with the hardening of local and international positions in the build up to those elections, we can rightfully expect that Syria will work hard to create the circumstances necessary to force the passage of its ‘salvation’ candidate. Given the worrying tract highlighted by the threats against the Saudi and Emirati ambassadors, and the issues most likely to be faced by whoever does come out of that Syrian-manufactured hell, however, one might be forgiven for worrying about a Hizballah President for the Republic of Lebanon.

Monday, August 27, 2007

And in other news...

"We don’t make regular porn films. Our films parody the situation in Israel, so we look at issues like the elections here and Mossad. There is a lot of relevance to the Arab-Israeli situation."

Read the rest here.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

New Poll: Vote For Your President!

Its been far too long I know, but nearly 3 months since the last Blacksmiths of Lebanon poll here is the next installment of our Presidential Elections 2007 poll series pitting the country's top contenders for the seat in a head to head battle determined by our readers.

Missing from the list are the names of two candidates, Chibli Mallat and Paul Fares, who have declared their intention to run for the seat but who have very little realistic chance of actually succeeding. If Vizu had allowed it we would've put their names up anyway, unfortunately though, we only had room for 10 contenders.

Included in the list are the names of two candidates, Riad Salameh and Michel Suleiman, who are constitutionally barred from holding the office. Here again realities on the ground have dictated the character of this poll (and this election) and opened up a route to the Presidency for both men. A route decorated with words such as 'amendment' and 'salvation'.

So whether you love'em or hate'em, vote on'em!! The poll is readily accessible on the right sidebar.

Let us know why you voted the way you did, along with any other comments or complaints, in this post's comments section.

On an administrative note, readers will find that our weekly poll section has now become our bi-weekly poll section. Thats just a reflection of my free time these days. Results on the last poll, which dealt with the deployment of international monitors on our borders, are accessible here, and a post on the topic will come up sometime in the future.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Pictures: Nahr el Bared Evacuation

Fighting in Nahr el Bared resumed today, one day after the Lebanese Army evacuated the families of the militants it has been fighting for just over three months. The evacuees included 26 women and 33 children who were examined by the Red Cross and transported in a special military convoy.

Below are pictures from Friday's evacuation:

Images as seen on Yahoo!News

Friday, August 24, 2007

Video: In Nahr el Bared This Week...

We remain ever-proud and supportive of our soldiers fighting and dying in our name. God bless them, their families and their sacrifices.

Compromise This!

The Faux-Compromise Candidate

Of the Army Commander’s building momentum to ascend to the country’s top seat we know. But what of those “salvation” or “compromise” qualities so readily attributed to him?

It was under the Lahoud-Suleiman era that the country’s armed forces endured its most intense and purposeful infiltration by the finest in pro-Syrian and pro-Hizballah personnel the military ranks could offer. An infiltration and subversion attested to by the bloodiness and duration of the ongoing battle in Nahr el Bared.

Of course, no one can doubt the bravery and ingenuity of the soldiers that fought and died in the fields, shores, and alleys of Nahr el Bared. But questions should be asked as to why, exactly, an Army fully aware for the past fifteen years of the presence of heavily-armed insurgent groups in camps across the country was not prepared by its top officers to crush such groups if the need arose. The answers, you’ll find, lead directly to that infiltration.

Despite the Commander’s sobriety throughout the Cedar Revolution, his recent nonchalance throughout the events of January 23rd - coupled with the dismal enforcement of any checks on weapons smuggling (or territory assimilation) along the Syrian border – may have rendered any chance of his gaining the seat through a pre-agreed-upon formula, à la Berri, null. But if the road to the Presidency is so hard for Suleiman, is it still worth the effort?

Enter the compromise, compromise candidate

While Suleiman’s premature rise to visible candidacy may have drawn out strong (and not so strong) articulations of opposition to his brand of military rule, and in turn severely damaged his chances, it has breathed new life into the hopes of those other candidates firmly in Syria’s pockets and looking to re-brand themselves B-class compromise candidates.

Such candidates include the likes of Fares Boueiz and Jean Obeid, both of whom served as Ministers of Foreign Affairs under the Hrawi and Lahoud presidencies, and both of whom are generally regarded as Syrian lackeys.

A Fundamental Compromise

But with all this talk of compromise flooding the political and social scene in Lebanon, it bears mentioning what, exactly is up for compromise and what isn’t.

For Hizballah, the answer is found in the group’s weapons and the freedom with which they run their paramilitary and clandestine operations. The arrival of any president not indisputably aware and acquiescent to their local and/or regional aims and prerogatives, as dictated by Damascus and Tehran, risks depriving the group of its political cover and forcing it into a confrontation with the state and the rest of the country’s body politic. As far as they are concerned, it is the Army Commander, Michel Suleiman, who can provide an extension of this cover.

Compromise for the sake of compromise

As far as the March 14 coalition is concerned, the issue of the Presidency remains one of safeguarding the advances made since the (partial) Syrian withdrawn of 2005. In terms of candidates, there seems to be a certain degree of homogeneity in the eyes of most voters (both parliamentary and presidential) between such candidates as Butros Harb and Nessib Lahoud. Both men came to be known as the parliamentary opposition to Syria’s tutelage over the country, with Nessib Lahoud having to endure a particularly uncomfortable, and sometimes dangerous, cohabitation with long-time Syrian strongman Michel el Murr, in his native Metn.

However, the group’s self-imposed single-candidate nomination procedure will likely find Harb as most suitable given both Lahoud and Gemayel’s inabilities to register decisive wins against Murr’s block, and Aoun’s candidates, in consecutive Metn elections (the last of which being the Aug 5th by-election to replace assassinated Minister of Industry, Pierre Gemayel).

And while Hizballah's weapons will surely top the priority-list of any who succeed in reaching the top seat, the March 14th group will seek to highlight its own set of issues over which there should be no fundamental compromise. Four of those issues were highlighted on Saturday by Justice Minister, Charles Rizk, who listed them as the "international tribunal to try suspects in the slaying of former Premier Rafik Hariri, the broken political system, security issues and a badly battered economy".

A Game Theoretic Compromise...

Rizk, however, may have been highlighting issues on which he, as a presidential candidate in his own right, has a head start over the rest of his contenders for the post. As Justice Minister he was charged with handling the international tribunal portfolio, a task which pitted him in direct confrontation with Emile Lahoud, the current President of the Republic and the man who initially backed him for the sensitive ministerial post as a 'compromise' candidate. The minister is also reportedly working on a widely anticipated electoral draft law which could aid in repairing the "broken political system".

If Rizk is to make it to the presidential post, however, he will surely have to ride on the coat-tails of another candidate whose candidacy will be heavily pushed by the March 14th coalition in order to secure Rizk's 'compromise' ascent. A task made that much harder by the rumored agreeability of a candidate like Butros Harb.

...and speaking of Economics

Compromise is a tricky affair. In seeking out the ultimate neutral president, how can we be sure that we don't concede more than what we set out to preserve?

As things stand today, Riad Salameh, the governor of the Lebanese Central Bank, is perhaps the only real compromise candidate in the running. He is a man who enjoys both national and global acclaim for his impeccable stewardship of the Lebanese Lira in one of the most politically volatile environments in the world. He is, however, the wrong man for the job.

After fifteen years of erosion of our country's institutions of the state, among them the army but also among them the constitution, it is time-overdue for a President not brought in on the back of yet-another "one-time-only" constitutional amendment. After three years of political assassination, it is important that we not disregard the sacrifices of those who openly voiced their opposition to tyranny and terror by placing at the nation's helm a voice constrained by office or character. And after three years of neglect, it is important that we not find a president who will allow his office to be once again sidelined in the political process, whether the reason be proclaimed neutrality or assigned irrelevancy.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Amend This!

Nearly nine months after the first fabricated “constitutional crisis” the country finds itself in the throes of yet another fictional “crisis of words”. This one – relating to the Presidency, whereas the first was related to the Cabinet and the second to Parliament – is purportedly based on ambiguous interpretations of a clause of the constitution stipulating the terms under which the presidential election session of Parliament can be held.

While certain parties have attached themselves to the notion that there can be no election whatsoever unless a candidate is found meeting the pre-conditions of (no-less-than) two-thirds of parliamentarians, others have subscribed to the position that written into the constitutional text is a clause stipulating that should a two-thirds majority be unachievable (by election and not pre-condition), then it is a simple majority that will choose the country’s next President.

A fair alternative given that the “2/3 or else” interpretation would assign to the country’s final legal reference the ability to only provide a void in the country’s executive branch, should no compromise be reached. Hardly a sensible thing for a constitution to do, especially when another clause explicitly makes such a scenario (a void in the executive branch) impossible to maintain! But then again, I’m no constitutional expert.

Assuming that it did take a constitutional expert to suggest amendments to the hefty text, however, it would appear that the country is filled with them.

Take Nabih Berri, for example, who is rumored to be pursuing a “2-year" amendment in which the newly consented-upon (and not really elected) President would be tasked with organizing new parliamentary elections (presumably to gerrymander the anti-Syrian Parliamentary majority out of power and reverse or obstruct much of the work carried out by the current government).

Or Michel Aoun who included, among the numerous rants issued by him and his FPM this week, a call for a “one-time referendum" amendment taking the presidentials outside parliament and into the streets (thereby allowing him - in his own mind and not reality, of course - to bypass the Hizballah leadership on which he has banked for the past year, and appeal directly to their constituency).

And, of course, is there not a proposal being pushed by Syria and its allies in the country to amend the “Grade One” clause in the constitution in order to make way for yet another one of their vassals, groomed from military stock (read: Army Commander Michel Suleiman), to take the reigns? And speaking of Grade One civil servants, wasn’t another such servant of the state (read: Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh) rumored to be a contender for the seat?

Whatever the case may be, amendments are easier said than done. And while everyone talks of ‘salvation’, there is a growing sense that in order for there to be such a salvation a national catastrophe will need to emerge. One that will make January’s disruptions look like the coup rehearsals they really were.

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Lebanese Constitution: On Electing a President

Article 49 [Presidential Powers]

(1) The President of the Republic is the head of the state and the symbol of the nation's unity. He shall safeguard the constitution and Lebanon's independence, unity, and territorial integrity. The President shall preside over the Supreme Defense Council and be the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces which fall under the authority of the Council of Ministers.

(2) The President of the Republic shall be elected by secret ballot and by a twothirds majority of the Chamber of Deputies. After a first ballot, an absolute majority shall be sufficient. The President's term is for six years. He may not be re-elected until six years after the expiration of his last mandate. No one may be elected to the Presidency of the Republic unless he fulfills the conditions of eligibility for the Chamber of Deputies.

(3) It is also not possible to elect judges, Grade One civil servants, or their equivalents in all public institutions to the Presidency during their term or office or within two years following the date of their resignation or their leaving office for whatever reason.


Article 73 [Election of the President]

One month at least and two months at most before the expiration of the term of office of the President of the Republic, the Chamber is summoned by its President to elect the newPresident of the Republic. However, should it not be summoned for this purpose, the Chamber meets of its own accord on the tenth day preceding the expiration of the President's term of office.

Article 74 [Vacancy of Presidency]

Should the Presidency become vacant through the death or resignation of the President or for any other cause, the Chamber meets immediately and by virtue of the law to elect a successor. If the Chamber happens to be dissolved at the time the vacancy occurs, the electoral bodies are convened without delay and, as soon as the elections have taken place, the Chamber meets by virtue of the law.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Suleiman Struts Up

With the path to the Presidency blown wide open by the lacklustre performance of one Orange General, Lebanon’s Army Commander moved this week to secure his place as a leading candidate to becoming his Army predecessor’s Presidential successor.

Speaking on Monday, the country’s Army Commander, Michel Suleiman, exonerated Syrian intelligence agencies of any links to the Fatah al Islam terrorist group despite credible proof maintained by the government showing the contrary. The Commander also absolved the government of accusations of its own involvement with the group, brought on by sources and media reports traced back to figures with close ties to the Syrian regime. Suleiman’s speech was accompanied by a statement by a former Minister of Defence stating, on behalf of the Army Commander, that he would be willing to take on the reigns of a transitional government if the need arose and if that were in conjunction with the wishes of the various opposing political groups. The former Defence Minister’s statement was met, on Wednesday, with the current Defence Minister’s thinly veiled endorsement*.

A Patriarchal Pathway

While momentum for Suleiman's takeover continues to build, however, the question as to the possibility of a candidate sympathetic to the March 14th movement remains open.

By insisting that a Parliamentary session dedicated to the election of a new President take place only with a two-thirds quorum (as is constitutionally stipulated - correction, it actually isn't stipulated in the constitution), while also outlining the Maronite Church's reservations about the possibility of the post being taken up by a man with a "military background", the head of that church, Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, is in fact providing the March 14th movement with a pathway sufficient enough to ensure Christian consensus on the country’s top post (reserved for members of the Maronite sect).

Essentially, Sfeir’s position is one which allows Michel Aoun and his Christian FPM parliamentarians to force their positions onto the parliamentary majority (whose numbers alone are not enough to hold the required quorum) but also limit the Orange General to a negotiating position with a view onto wider cabinet representation, as opposed to the Presidential seat itself.

Indeed, through the recently concluded Metn by-elections and the announcements of support (and/or lack thereof) from the Orange General's pro-Syrian allies, developments on the ground should have the effect of finally convincing Aoun to put aside his presidential ambitions and accept the political bearings assigned to him by both the voting general public and the overbearing political characteristics of the country . The question remains however, did the General get the message?

A Beirut Barter

Most likely not (yet), as excerpts from a recent interview seem to show. But the excerpts also highlight one other important element of the presidential race, that none of the candidates can afford to overlook the regional and international circumstances to which these elections must acquiesce.

Through that lens, the Army Commander’s heavy criticism of what he described as a shortfall in U.S. military aide in the battle against Fatah al-Islam could be viewed as an attempt at securing a higher price for the country’s extrication from the Iranian military sphere – as represented by Hizballah’s weapons. In short, the statements could have been a message for the U.S. to pay up - by providing the military with advanced weapons and machinery capable of allowing it to secure hostile borders to the north, east, and south - or shut up.

It is a price, Iran’s chief representative in Lebanon once again declared yesterday, the fundamentalist state is itself more than willing to pay to keep us in that sphere.

Oh Captain, my captain

Whatever the case may be, if Suleiman or any other presidential hopeful is to stand a chance at achieving any sort of consensus on his suitability for the country’s top post, then he must clearly delineate his willingness to accept the irreversibility of the country's projection over the past 2 and half years, and his ability to safeguard the integrity of the state and its institutions while navigating the country through the regional storm everyone knows is coming.

A navigation which must have the disarmament of Hizballah, through international resolutions as well as an internally-reached compromise bounded by the Taif Accord, at its core.

*Reported on the LBCI News Flash website as a statement attributed to the “Minister of Defense” declaring that through their blood and sacrifice, the Army’s command, officers and soldiers could not be denied an involvement in politics. (my own loose translation)

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Hizballah's Cross-Border Act

If you're wondering why it was so important for Hizballah and its supporters in Windsor, Ontario (Canada), to show how devoted they are to the organization, take a look at what took place across the river in nearby Dearborn, Michigan (U.S.A), where a "charitable" organisation accused of channeling financial support to several terrorist organizations primary among them Hizballah, but also including Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, was raided and shut down by federal agents.

And while Hizballah supporters on both sides of the river gathered to celebrate the Lebanese government-negotiated end of the war Hizballah started, it is with the view of once again resisting American and Zionist plans - not just in the Middle East but in Canada as well (sarcasm) - that Hizballah's advocates in Windsor have rallied.
He [Hussein Dabaja, a Lebanese-born Hezbollah supporter] said several of Windsor's Lebanese citizens will do what it takes to keep the sign up, short of violence.

"The whole community is not going to let anybody take it down," said Mr. Dabaja. "It's going to stay up until the last minute. If someone comes to take it down, they're ready to fight for it, to protect it to be up there. We're not trying to offend anybody."
Of course, far be it from me to tell Mr. Dabaja how he should be using the freedoms of speech and action he obviously cherishes so much from his home along the shores of Lake Eerie. But it does seem slightly hypocritical of Mr. Dabaja to be promoting an organisation continuously engaged in an open subversion of the Lebanese state and its institutions, while all the while enjoying the freedoms accorded by such institutions, in another state (Canada). Perhaps Mr. Dabaja needs to be reminded of just some of the activities in which Hizballah is involved in his homeland, including the placement of severe retrictions on the freedoms of the press, participation in an attempted coup against a democratically elected government, involvement in illegal weapons smuggling and sales, and a bevy of other charges (including rumoured summary executions of Lebanese citizens).

Finally, no Hizballah effort would be quite complete without a reference to the "divinity" of the group and its leader
"They keep talking about Nasrallah" said Mr. Dabaja. "Nasrallah for us is a red light. It is like saying Jesus is bad."
On a day meant to celebrate the end of the monstrous devastation unleashed on the country, and especially on the residents of Lebanon's South, perhaps Mr Dabaja and all those sharing in his skewed vision would do better to recognize the sanctity of human life as a whole, instead of that of the man who delivered that devastation. A human sanctity Mr Dabaja's (very "undivine") leader gleefully disregarded in his pursuit of war, and in his ready diligence to the carry out masters' orders from Tehran.

Four Hundred and Twenty One Years Ago

In that year [1586 A.D.], it appears, the Druze country was finally subdued. In [the area known as modern-day Lebanon], however, the Ottomans soon began to face a problem of another kind. The Safavids, since the early years of the century, had established Twelver Shiism as the religion of the new kingdom they had founded for themselves in Persia, and imposed it on their subjects. At that time, the leading men of learning among the Twelver Shiites were active in the villages of Jamal Amil, in the hinterland of Tyre, south of the Shuf, and a number of these scholars were invited to Persia to provide the newly established state religion there with doctrinal guidance.


With the resurgence of Safavid power in Persia, the [Shiite] Harfush emirs [of the Baalbek region] began to seek an extension of their power to the strategic town of Mashghara, in the southern-most reaches of the Bekaa valley, no doubt with a view of securing direct contact with their fellow Shiites in nearby Jabal Amil [modern day southern Lebanon]. The Ottomans were determined to stop such contact being established, and kept a watchful eye on the Shiites, in Baalbek as in Jabal Amil.


To reduce the lurking Shiite danger in these parts, the Ottomans turned to the Druze Maans of the Shuf, who stood chastened and subservient after the successful Ottoman expedition sent against them in 1586 [A.D.]. Their choice fell on Fakhr al-Din Maan...

Source: A House of Many Mansions - The History of Lebanon Reconsidered (by Kamal Salibi), pg 125-126.

This post should be read in relevance to the post directly preceding it. It should be taken it at face value, only.

Telephones, Missiles, Land, and all...

As the discovery of a land-based telecommunications infrastructure – illegally operated by Hizballah in complete independence from that of the Lebanese state - continues to reverberate through Lebanese political and security circles, the UK's Sunday Telegraph this week exposed further evidence of a Hizballah "land-grab" and construction frenzy north of the Litani river aimed restoring the group’s missile-launching capabilities and, some suspect, implement far-reaching demographical displacements facilitated by last summer’s devastating July War.

Of Missiles and Men (with Beards)

The story was first reported by Nicolas Blanford in the Christian Science Monitor (CSM) back in February of this year. Several months after that report, a BBC2 video-documentary of Hizballah activity and sentiment in Lebanon revealed further evidence of bunker and missile-pad building by the group. According to the Hizballah gunmen who detained and interrogated the crew outside one such construction site, however, the group was simply building nectarine orchards (queue the laughter).

And while all three pieces have spoken highly of the assiduity with which the UNIFIL command and troops have approached their mandate south of the Litani (to the extent of driving Hizballah and their rocket-men north of the infamous river), they have also contained blistering indictments of the Lebanese Army and its lack of determination at controlling the Iranian-backed guerilla group. An example being the BBC’s documentary-reporter’s observation that:
“All around, the Lebanese Army was manning roadblocks with an unusual alacrity, but leaving the final decision as to who they should let through to a number of other bearded gentlemen, also dressed in black and who carried Motorola walkie-talkies.”
Highway to Heaven

As to claims that Hizballah is engaged in a wide-reaching demographical project financed primarily by Iran and fronted by one Ali Tajeddine, the evidence is building.

As a matter of principle, noone in Lebanon should have the right of dictating where any Lebanese can or can't live, no matter their religious beliefs. But then again, there is very little in common between a Shiite family buying a house in a Christian village in the south (or vice versa) and the large-scale land purchases being undertaken by a Shiite-businessman with strong links to Hizballah and rumoured financial backing from Iran, the large-scale deplacement of Hizballah-loyal Shiites into the properties purchased by this man, and the massive military build-up that has seemed to follow his land purchases north of the Litani in a sweeping motion connecting the country's Shiite population bases.

And connecting they are, as this quote from Levinson's blog-post on the same subject details:
"It’s a massive at least four lane wide asphalt autostrade [highway] stretching from the Hezbollah stronghold of Nabbatiye north east into the Western Bekaa. There was no comparable road project anywhere in the south that I saw. Every few hundred feet along the new road, banners proclaim the project has been funded by 'The Iranian Organization for Sharing in the Building of Lebanon'.

It should be noted that similar banners are all over the south, but we were still puzzled by the scope of the project in an area one would have least expected it based on which areas were most damaged last year".
More interesting than the alacrity with which this 'divine' highway is being built, however, is the alacrity with which the plan was put into action. Only one year after Hizballah launched the war which resulted in the massive internal displacements used to populate the villages and land plots it continues to develop alongside (or above) its missile bunkers north of the Litani; Only one year after it unilaterally sabotaged the National Dialogue efforts which, as a concession in themselves, were supposed to deliver to the group an extra-institutional medium with which it could negotiate national issues in good faith (instead it unilaterally started a war); Hizballah continues to run Lebanese territory as its own, without any recourse to the democratic and constitutional institutions on which this country was founded and, more importantly, on which any viable future for the country must depend.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Part II: Walkin' the Walk

Politicians will be politicians, whether they are Lebanese, American, Swedish, or South African. And when it comes to talking the talk, one would be hard pressed to take away - from PR-contests such as these - anything more than a general doling out of lip service from the candidates to their respective interest groups.

But one has to wonder how long the Democrat front-runners in the race to the White House will get away with paying lip service to a PR strategy intent on making the administration's current Middle East strategy for dealing with Syria look bad, while their own co-partisans take measures to ensure that their country's Middle Eastern interests are not compromised by said talk.

The most recent of these measures being the Ackerman Resolution on Lebanon, authored by U.S. Congressman Gary Ackerman (D-NY) and unanimously approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Ackerman himself is the Chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia. Along with Rep. Charles Boustany (R-LA), the resolution's co-sponsors also included Representatives Tom Lantos (D-CA) and Darrell Issa (R-CA), both of whom accompanied Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) on her last attempt at walking the walk entailed by the talk (i.e. visiting Syria and meeting with its dictator, Bashar el Assad).

But even while consciously contradicting their talk with their walk the Democrats must equally know that the Bush's administration's walk on Syria had at one point looked, and maybe even sounded, much like the Democrats' walk today. A walk that led this Republican administration to conclude, just as any future Democratic one will invariably conclude, that talking to a regime that has no interest in bringing to the table effective changes in its policies - as they pertain to Lebanon - is an embarrassing waste of time.

If you're still unconvinced, consider the numerous forays of the likes of Colin Powell and Dick Armitage into the lion's den* in an attempt to present the Syrians with a viable alternative to today's status quo. More specifically, during his May 2003 trip to Damascus, and prior to the institution of the Syria Accountability Act in December 2003, it was rumoured that the Secretary of State had personally approached Bashar el Assad with a proposal on a redefining of American-Syrian relations.

Of the Syrians, the proposal asked for a complete withdrawal from Lebanon, a severing of the Syrians' close relationship with Iran, and an end of that regime's support for Hizballah, Hamas, and the handful of other terrorist organizations funded, trained, and controlled by Damascus, coupled of course with support for the US position in Iraq (if not publicly then privately). In return the US would provide support for a comprehensive Syrian-Israeli settlement, including a return of the Golan Heights, followed by massive economic aide packages aimed at bolstering that state's economy, as well as the regime's long-run sustainability in the aftermath of the end of the state of emergency in place since 1963 and through which the autocratic regime there has implemented severe restrictions on its citizen's civil liberties.

The proposal, as we all know by now, would come to be rejected by a regime intent on maintaining its choking hold on its smaller neighbor to the west, and unwilling (or unable) to unlock itself from its bondage to the east.

Whatever the case maybe, however, come November 2008 - and January 2009 - when a new administration takes over, those continuing to rehash old mantras, whether they be Republican or Democrat, will have a hard time reconciling their talk with the Syrian regime's walk (or lack thereof). But then again, talk is cheap and come time to act the American voting public might just find themselves relieved to have Bush-Cheney-light dealing with Syria's Saddam-light.

In either case, we can only hope enough of our country's anti-Syrian politicians will have survived (assassinations, not skewed votes) to have seen this latest chapter of the country's troubled history through. A task made that much harder given all that damned talk of talk.

*"Significantly, the Syrian national anthem written by another Damascene nationalist, Khalil Mardam, did not sing the virtues of Syria as a nation-state standing by itself, but as the 'lion's den of Arabism', its glorious historical 'throne', and its sacred 'shrine'. By contrast the Lebanese national anthem, written by the Maronite poet Rashid Nakhleh, sang of the old men of Lebanon and the young, in the mountains and the plains, responding to the call of the historical fatherland and rallying around the 'eternal' cedar flag to defend 'Lebanon forever'." (Source)

Part I: Talkin' the Talk

As part of the Jerusalem Post's ongoing 'blog'-coverage of the US 2008 Presidential Race, The Road to the Whitehouse, candidates answer the question:

Which Assad do you believe? The one who threatens war or the one who says he wants to make peace?

Here's what they had to say:

Barack Obama

"So far, the Syrian regime has given all the wrong answers...It continues to arm and assist terrorist groups such as Hizbullah (directly or as a transit point for Iranian shipments)...

It is seeking to destabilize the government of Fuad Seniora in Lebanon, perpetrating political assassinations and instigating acts of violence that could trigger another civil war.

I would engage Syria in direct bilateral talks. We should make plain there are two paths ahead: greater engagement, improved political ties and economic cooperation or greater isolation through imposition of the full range of sanctions in the Syria Accountability Act which will make it difficult for companies and financial institutions that do business in Syria to continue to do business in the US."

John McCain

"...we should be deeply concerned by the ongoing subversion of Lebanese sovereignty by Syria and strongly support efforts to move forward on the investigation of the assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister...

Lasting peace and security in Lebanon must include a democratic government that has a monopoly on authority within Lebanon's borders. That means no independent militias, no Hizbullah fighters, no weapons and equipment flowing to Hizbullah across Lebanon's borders. So long as that is not the case, Hizbullah is likely to further regroup, reconstitute, and rearm.

There is one bottom line: to achieve lasting peace, sooner or later, one way or another, Hizbullah must be disarmed and its patron in Damascus confronted. The US and the international community must face Syria from a position of strength and apply real pressure on the Assad regime to change its dangerous behavior in the region."

Hillary Clinton

"The Syrian regime led by President Bashar Assad is a repressive dictatorship that has attempted to destabilize the Lebanese government...

I supported exerting greater pressure on the Assad regime including co-sponsoring the Syria Accountability Act that passed Congress and placed additional sanctions on Syria. In addition, I have long argued that diplomatic discussions with Syria can aid our efforts to assess and ameliorate their behavior..."

John Edwards

"The Assad regime has not been good for the Syrian people or for the Middle East. The regime continues to be involved in a concerted campaign to undermine the stability of Lebanon's elected government and support Hizbullah's aggression in Northern Israel.

We must approach Bashar Assad's motives with hard-eyed skepticism, but this does not mean we should abandon engagement or the hopes for diplomacy...

We must reengage Damascus today with tough diplomacy aimed at highlighting the costs repeating its illegal and destabilizing decisions of the past and at integrating the Assad government as much as possible into the mainstream community of nations.

I support the executive order signed by President Bush last week that would freeze the property and assets of any parties who attempt to undermine Lebanon's democratically elected government. The executive order was a good step in the direction of using diplomacy and carrots and sticks to support stability and the rule of law throughout the Middle East."

Joe Biden

"Syria is the common denominator of many problems - in Lebanon , the Palestinian territories, and to a lesser extent Iraq .

They are Iran 's closest ally. But it is also a fundamentally weak and isolated regime. We should work to break up its marriage of convenience with Iran. If Syria could be encouraged to act less irresponsibly it could have a real impact in the region."

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Geographical Distribution of the Lebanese Diaspora

I found this little graphic on a recently refurbished website for the World Council for Cedars Revolution. For the most part, the template is similar to that used on another site catering to the diaspora at large, differing somewhat in content, however, with divergences mirroring those between the FPM and the rest of the Cedar Revolution's body-politic.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Metn By-Elections

First, Some Canadian Cheddar

For the past two to three years a trend has emerged in some American (and more generally, western) media outlets that has sought to (over-)compensate for those news agencies' complacency and/or complicity in taking their nation(s) to war. As it relates to Lebanon this trend has consisted, for the most part, in the application of a Seymoure-esque narrative, usually peddled by the same Baath regime PR-reps that fed Hersh his spoonfuls of disinformation, painting the current government as weak and unpopular, barely holding on to power save for the grace (or lack thereof) of a Bush administration intent on pushing its plan for a New Middle East, no matter what the cost!

It is a narrative that is perfectly suited to emerging social and political trends amongst those journalists' domestic audiences, but which, sadly, has nothing to do with realities on the ground in Lebanon.

Nevertheless, it is through this narrative that I re-entered the world of Lebanese politics (after a much needed month-long holiday) through my morning copy of Toronto's Globe and Mail and the words of that paper's invariably misguided Middle East correspondent, Mark Mackinnon.

It doesn't take Mr. Mackinnon long (try the first word) to submerge his readers into a world made up of "The wobbly government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora" taking "another body blow yesterday" as "the controversial Gen. Aoun [is immediately made] the favourite to win a presidential election" after his candidate's narrow win in last Sunday's Parliamentary by-elections.

Notions made almost laughable were it not for his paper's significant readership and the propagation of the false narrative that articles such as these have on that readership.

Never mind the "body blow" to the General's presidential hopes dealt to him by the very community he claims to represent, with close to 2/3 of Christian Maronite and just over 1/2 of all Christian votes going to his candidate's opponent. Never mind also that this "wobbly" government is made up of a cross-denominational coalition which continues to hold a significant majority in the country's Parliament. The narrative must be maintained!

And speaking of Parliament, Mr. Mackinnon doesn't fail to allude to that institution's dis-functionality, insisting, however, on leaving out the source of that dis-functionality in the country's pro-Syrian Speaker of Parliament who broke with tradition (and the constitution) earlier this year and refused to convene the legislative body, lest it pass and approve national bills unpopular with his puppet-masters in Damascus.

But most damaging to Mr. Mackinnon's respectability as a competent analyst of the Lebanese political scene is his insistence throughout the article on establishing the vote as a show of majority-Christian support for Hizballah and its weapons.

Perhaps if Mr. Mackinnon had at least taken the time to talk to any of those Metn residents who since their 2005 vote for Aoun's FPM had changed their votes to ones for his opponents, he might have been able to come to conclusions reached by almost anyone else who has followed the fumblings of the Orange General over the past two years: That it is Aoun's alliance with Hizballah, along with the proven impotence of the "Memorandum of Understanding" and the overall political cover provided to that group in its continued subversion of the Lebanese state, that have eroded his popularity and rendered him, once again, a destructive idiot useful only to Damascus.

Such notions, however, have a hard time fitting into Mackinnon's view of the world or, rather, the marketability of this view. No, Mr. Mackinnon is more interested in rehashing the Orange political machine's emaciated arguments about "emotions" winning the day (or in this case, losing it) than in seriously reviewing the role Syrian influence played in garnering Aoun's candidate with enough votes to narrowly beat out Gemayel. Votes the regime provided both through the local Baath and SSNP offices it directly controls, and through the votes with which its influence is less direct, such as the Metn's Hizballah-loyal Shiite vote and the pro-Syrian-establishment-loyal Armenian-Tashnag vote. Votes numbering in the thousands.

Instead, Mackinnon almost manages to erase these allegations of Syrian interference through a cursory and almost derisory remark at the bottom of his very forgettable piece, concluding his article with the following line:
"Neither Mr. Gemayel nor his allies took defeat gently yesterday...Saad Hariri and Walid Jumblatt, two key backers of Mr. Siniora's government, charged that Syria had somehow played a role in the by-election." (emphasis mine)
But Mackinnon is not alone in the world of foreign correspondents desperate to transform Lebanon's realities into yet another "evidentiary" piece in their fight to redeem their uninhibited acclamation of their own governments' plans to invade Iraq. Fellow blogger Tony Badran (or Anton Efendi) adds to his ongoing genuiszzz series documenting a number of journalists' failed forays into Middle East (and more specifically, Lebanese) politics and their own attempts at pushing the narrative. His is an excellent blog, with every post well worth the read.

Jebneh Baladieh (3amol ma3roof)

Meanwhile other writers, perhaps more seasoned and certainly better informed, have taken careful note of the election results. Writing in his latest Dailystar op-ed, Michael Young carefully analyzes the election results and their implication on the upcoming presidential race (and no Mr. Mackinnon, Aoun was not immediately made the favourite). Briefly, a man as divisive as Aoun - both on the communal intra-Christian level as well as the inter-sectarian national level - can never and should never be President.

Young also correctly identifies the Armenian Tashnag party's political miscalculation in heeding the calls from Baadbda (or Baabdat) and Bteghrine (on behalf of Damascus, of course), and entering into a head-on confrontation with their Metn Maronite co-habiteurs:
Tashnag committed what could become a historic mistake. The party may have partly been playing hardball with Saad Hariri, in order to get the Armenians two seats back in Beirut in the 2009 elections. But what their support for Khoury effectively did was trash two principles the Armenians always adhered to in the past: siding with the Lebanese state, whatever the cost; and maintaining good relations with a majority of Christians.
But while the Tashnag may have felt they had a score to settle with the March 14th camp, we can be certain that this score would have been easily put aside had it not been for those calls - be they directly from Damascus or through Baabda and Bteghrine.

Certainly, Amine Gemayel's choice of the Tashnag as the target of his electoral frustrations, along with statistical reports of votes by sect, should provide some degree of clarity. And they do, kinda. If it is indeed true that each candidate received approximately 50% of the Sunni vote, as some news services have reported, then it can only be concluded that these votes, made up almost exclusively of newly-nationalized Syrian citizens (historically used - and nationalized - by the Bteghrinator for the sole purpose of bolstering pro-Syrian votes in his native Metn) were equally split by Michel el Murr in order to guarantee him continued good standing with both the Syrians and the Gemayels - including the rest of the March 14th crew.

And so, with the imported Sunni votes shared among the candidates, the Shiite votes solely owned by Nasrallah (and therefore going to Aoun), and what emerged as an outright win for Gemayel among the Christians of the Metn, we are left with the remaining block of votes directed by an Armenian Tashnag-politburo with strong ties to the country's pro-Syrian President.

Whatever message those Tashnag voters had intended to send to the rest of their compatriots through this highly risky vote, however, it is clear that it was not worth the cost. I leave you with more from Michael Young:
Now Tashnag finds itself on the side of the Syrian-backed opposition, propping up a man who will surely never be president, and doing so against the current of Christian public opinion in the Metn. On top of that, the party has turned Amin Gemayel into an angry enemy. All for what? To get the unknown Camille Khoury into Parliament, in an election process whose legitimacy Aoun didn't even recognize?

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

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