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I mourn for the people of Beirut tonight after the horrific, catastrophic, explosion today. I’ll cover the details in my next “Week in Review,” but I can’t help but post what I wrote from my second trip there in April 2010.
[Posted 2:00 AM ET…Beirut, Lebanon]
Of all the world’s hot spots, I have long argued this is as important as any of them, including Iran, because a region wide Middle East conflict could just as easily start in Lebanon.
And so after coming here five years ago, on the heels of the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri in a horrific truck bombing that claimed 22 lives, I ignored the following U.S. State Department warning on travel here.
“The Department of State continues to warn U.S. citizens to avoid all travel to Lebanon due to current safety and security concerns. U.S. citizens living and working in Lebanon should understand that they accept risks in remaining and should carefully consider those risks….
“While Lebanon enjoys periods of relative calm, the potential for spontaneous upsurge in violence is real. Lebanese government authorities are not able to guarantee protection for citizens or visitors to the country should violence erupt suddenly. Access to borders and ports can be interrupted with little or no warning. Public demonstrations occur frequently. Under such circumstances, the ability of U.S. government personnel to reach travelers or provide emergency services may at times be severely limited.”
While some of the above is standard boilerplate for a fair number of countries these days, I did register with the Department of State before coming here, just in case. I also have to note that, slightly tongue in cheek, I am a trained professional…a professional traveler who is duly aware of the political situation in countries I visit. I thus saw this period as indeed one of “relative calm” and I’ve had zero issues, though I have not been to Hizbullah territory as I was in 2005.
Things are nonetheless happening in Lebanon on an almost daily basis. I didn’t realize until I read in the paper one morning that the day before, “A mob of angry soccer fans attacked the Kuwait Embassy in Beirut Wednesday after the Lebanese soccer team Nejmeh lost its match against the Kuwaiti team of Al-Qadsia. A group of 50 people left the Cit Sportive Stadium in Beirut after the match…then headed to the (Kuwaiti Embassy) where they attacked the embassy guards and destroyed the guard room. The Lebanese Army intervened to stop the fighting and fired gunshots into the air to disperse the crowd.”
That would have been exciting to stumble across. The other day I hired a driver to take me into the Bekaa Valley, but whereas in ’05 I went into the Hizbullah stronghold of Baalbek, this time I stayed 30-45 minutes away (at a lovely winery). In this instance I had read the following in the Daily Star newspaper upon my arrival last Sunday.
“The security situation in Baalbek calmed down during the weekend after a clash broke out between the Lebanese Army and a powerful clan in the city….
“The Jaafar clan fired on an army patrol conducting a raid in the Hay al-Sharawna neighborhood of Baalbek to locate fugitives from justice….
“Security sources told the Daily Star the clashes were serious and 10 people were wounded: five soldiers and five clan members, but that no one was killed.
“They added that the clash lasted for 90 minutes and that 20 RPG rockets were fired, while some 3,000 rounds of ammunition were used.”
Good time to drink wine instead, I mused.
Actually, a development occurred this week that had I known about it earlier, before my trip arrangements were made, may have given me pause; the accusation on the part of Israel and the United States that Syria has been supplying Scud missiles to Hizbullah. If true, this is a game-changer, for while the balky Scud isn’t the kind of weapon usually associated with the nimble terrorists, it places all of Israel at risk for the first time. It’s already a game-changer in terms of the rhetoric and where this comes into play for anyone traveling here is that if Israel were to attack a suspected arms convoy, either in Bekaa or Syria itself, there would be a decent chance Hizbullah would respond in kind. This is remote, I was told on Thursday in a meeting with one of the true experts here in Lebanon (more on this later), but one never knows for sure in this place. What if Israel mistook a civilian vehicle(s) for an arms shipment? It’s certainly happened before.
Where it really comes into play for a little old tourist like yours truly is that Hizbullah, in controlling South Beirut, can in an instant blockade the airport road, as it has done numerous times in the past, and then you’re stuck.
But just a quick history lesson to provide a little context.
1975-1990…Lebanese civil war, centered here in Beirut, that by some accounts claimed up to 150,000 lives (a figure I saw again just this week in a related article). The civil war erupted when Christians attacked a bus of Palestinians in Beirut.
1978…Israel invades Lebanon to suppress Palestinian attacks from the south and then occupies parts of the country for 22 years.
1978…as up to 40 militias battle it out, Hizbullah, “Party of God,” is founded with the express mission of destroying Israel.
1983…Hizbullah takes out the U.S. Marine barracks near Beirut’s international airport, killing 241, and simultaneously attacks the French barracks, killing 58.
1990s…following Syria’s military role in ending the fighting, supported by both the U.S. and the French (who once governed here before Lebanon’s independence in 1943), Lebanese businessman, Rafik Hariri, with the support of both Syria and his sponsor, Saudi Arabia, begins to rebuild Beirut. Some call him a hero and visionary. Others say that in grabbing huge tracts of land for himself, he is running roughshod over the place. Bottom line, Hariri becomes prime minister and without his $billions, Beirut’s transformation probably doesn’t take place.
2000…Israel leaves, but keeps some lands bordering the Golan Heights, taken from Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, including a 15-square mile territory called Shebaa Farms.
2004…UN Security Council Resolution 1559 calls for free and fair elections in Lebanon as well as for the disarming of Hizbullah. All foreign troops, read Syria, are to withdraw.
2005…Rafik Hariri, now leading a political coalition and still the go-to guy on everything having to do with Beirut’s development, has a falling out with Syria. He is assassinated in February. Syria has its hands all over the slaughter and a UN tribunal would eventually begin to make progress on reaching indictments. [But then the courageous prosecutor, Detlev Mehlis, resigns, and the tribunal has essentially bogged down ever since, though under a new Canadian prosecutor there is a chance indictments will be handed down in the next 12 months. This is a highly explosive issue, to say the least, should charges ever be formally filed. Hizbullah, for one, while always denying involvement, would go ballistic were it to be implicated in any way.]
2005, part II…two coalitions emerge in the aftermath of the bombing, the March 8 coalition (so named for the day of a massive demonstration) which contains pro-Syrian supporters, including Hizbullah, and the March 14 coalition, comprised of moderates and pro-democracy forces that are pro-West. March 14 is led by Rafik Hariri’s $billionaire son, Saad, who has zero experience in politics and was just working in the family construction and development business. Syria is then forced to withdraw all its troops after 29 years of occupation (I specifically arrived back then the last day they did so, as the troops exited through Baalbek).
Since then the political process has been a mess…plus…
2006…Israel and Hizbullah stage a 34-day war that claims 1,200 Lebanese lives (mostly civilians) and 160 Israelis (mostly soldiers). Israel does tremendous damage to Lebanon’s infrastructure. UN Security Council Resolution 1701 ended the war with UN forces, UNIFIL, moving in to police the southern part of Lebanon, and Hizbullah, once again, was to disarm. Instead, a rocket force once thought to be 15,000 missiles before the ’06 conflict, is today anywhere from 40,000 to as many as 60,000 strong.
Separately, elections were first held in spring 2005, with Hariri emerging as leader of the majority March 14 coalition, but he’s had major trouble establishing a true government, as, among others, Hizbullah demands a seat at the table, and a veto. Under Lebanon’s crazy constitution, for example, the president must be a Christian, the prime minister a Sunni, and the Speaker a Shia, with cabinet positions evenly allotted.
[Lebanon is roughly 39% Christian, 28% Sunni, and 28% Shia, with the rest a myriad group of sects, including the Druze. Lebanon hasn’t held an official census since 1932 and this is an issue again because there was a call to lower the voting age from 21 to 18; but while this would add an estimated 50,000 Christians to the voting rolls, it would also add 175,000 Muslims, which would greatly aid Hizbullah, thus no change as yet.]
2008…Hizbullah, during the latest impasse on formation of a cabinet, decides to show who is boss and takes over vast areas of Beirut it had never entered in force before. In the fighting that ensues, 65 are killed. It’s a truly frightening moment. Hizbullah withdraws.
And that’s pretty much where things stand today. Hizbullah has veto power in the cabinet but little governing is taking place with Saad Hariri prime minister. Hariri and other March 14 coalition members, though, once virulently anti-Syria, have been undergoing one “road to Damascus” conversion after another, prostrating themselves at the feet of Syrian President Assad even though it is highly likely he, at best, knew of the assassination plot against Rafik Hariri. This part of the process is rather sickening, and pitiful, to an outside observer such as yours truly.
But let me tell you about where I am located. From my hotel room window, on the 18th floor of the Phoenicia, where I also stayed in 2005, I can see the site of the Hariri assassination (replaced by a memorial and small square), the bombed out famous St. George Yacht Club, which they are leaving as a reminder, though the club is in use with a lovely pool and yacht basin, where I can see at least five major league yachts moored at the present time. Also, I look down on a bombed out HSBC building which is being repaired (finally), a huge apartment tower that was severely damaged, which it appears they are slowly doing something with, and then off in the distance a major project that is going to consist of spectacular office and apartment towers with beautiful views of the Mediterranean, which is one block away from where I sit, and I can see a steady flow of tanker traffic, as well as Lebanese navy patrol boats. I’ve read that way up in the sky, beyond what I can see, Israel conducts almost constant operations and one assumes is mapping out its next targets during a future war.
So right in front of me is Lebanon…Beirut…good and bad, past and future.
But I was floored in my first walk on Monday to one of my favorite spots from before, near Martyrs Square, where all the sidewalk cafes are, as to the level of development taking place; apartments, offices, a spectacular shopping mall. None of this was going on in the same part of town in 2005. I won’t get into whether this is another bubble as I don’t know enough yet, and in the grand scheme of things it really doesn’t matter (especially as opposed to past pronouncements of mine on the global real estate front), but it is almost solely Saudi and Kuwaiti money from what I can gather.
My hotel is 99% Arab occupied and on Tuesday, when I hired a driver to take me into Bekaa, and the winery (Chateau Kefraya), “Charbel” gave me a terrific tour of areas and neighborhoods I hadn’t seen before both in Beirut and in the surrounding mountains where Saudi, Kuwaiti and, in some cases, South Americans, are building their own villages, in essence; all of them preferring to be with others of their kind, of course. The villas are spectacular. Parts of Beirut are spectacular. And you just wonder why all of it is taking place when some of us believe the dream will be shattered anew at some point.
If you were totally naïve to the politics, and history, you’d think parts of Lebanon were almost like Club Med. There’s a reason why long ago Beirut was known as the “Paris of the Mediterranean.” It’s why I think there is no more fascinating place in the world, even if I have trouble entering certain areas my contact told me yesterday I should nonetheless feel totally safe in. [We aren’t talking the Hizbullah stronghold in south Beirut…that’s a different animal, especially for an American.]
So what of my contact? He is Michael Young, opinion editor of the Daily Star. I have long been a fan of his, and his paper, and just happened to write him a note before I came, requesting a few minutes. Young was born in America but shortly thereafter came to Beirut and has been here ever since. It also just so happens that he literally came out with a book the other week, “The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle.” It was kind of funny. We met at the entrance to a large, beautiful shopping mall I hadn’t been to before, and in looking for a place to have a drink passed through a bookstore so, of course, I eagerly purchased a copy and got his signature.
I obviously haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but I strongly encourage you to pick up a copy. Let’s move the needle on sales. As an endorsement on the book jacket reads, from another favorite of mine, Jim Hoagland of the Washington Post, “Michael Young plunges deep beneath the headlines to provide this inside account of Lebanon’s national genius for self-destruction and phoenix-like recovery.”
Michael and I had a terrific discussion – he shot down some of my concerns and theories, but didn’t disagree with many others – and there is no truer description of what I’ve observed in my trips here…self-destruction and recovery.
Michael has experienced firsthand the impacts of the bombs of war (though his immediate neighborhood has remained largely intact), while I consider Lebanon just a massive powderkeg, for one primary reason alone, the presence of Hizbullah. It’s a situation totally unique to the world…where an armed militia, not the political leaders, and not the official military, really calls the shots. Until they are disarmed (which isn’t likely to happen in my lifetime unless Israel were to somehow totally wipe it out) it’s why we all need to pay attention to what happens here.