Thursday, June 27, 2013

Speaking on Monocle 24 about Sidon clashes

I spoke on Monocle 24 radio on Monday night about Sidon's clashes between Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir's militants and the Lebanese army. Episode available here (I come on at 51:30).

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Abra fiercely divided after Assir defeat

[Originally posted at NOW, with slideshow of photos from the scene]

Cars roasted to the bare metal, with Assir's mosque in the background (NOW/Alex Rowell)

The apartment block in which Assir's mosque is housed, seen from the south (NOW/Alex Rowell)

Stepping through the wreckage of Sidon’s Abra neighborhood Tuesday, the once-quiet residential street which until Monday housed the mosque and operational headquarters of Salafist cleric Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir looks as though it has been struck simultaneously by a tornado and a series of lightning bolts. The windowless, tireless remains of cars roasted to the bare metal sit beneath balconies charred jet-black by fire. Craters the size of fruit bowls punctuate the tarmac, the results of the innumerable RPGs whose casings litter the floor, adding to the layers of rubble, shattered glass, and blood.

Even on the parallel street, Abra’s main commercial thoroughfare, the heavy machine gun cartridges, bullet-speckled windows, and toasted vehicles extend for hundreds of meters in both directions. From this angle, one sees entire wall panels blown off the multi-story apartment block above Assir’s Bilal bin Rabah mosque, which is otherwise thoroughly mangled and punctured by rocket strikes. Solemn as the scene is, it hasn’t stopped some enterprising Lebanese from seeing an opportunity: tucked under the windshield wiper of one smashed-up Mercedes is a crisp business card, promising a highly competitive price for repair.

For the residents re-opening their shops for the first time since clashes broke out Sunday, the defeat of Assir’s militiamen at the hands of the Lebanese army (and, reportedly, Hezbollah-affiliated forces) has sharply polarized opinions, with some deflated, some delighted, and most somewhere in between.

“We feel sorry for the people who died, especially in the army,” said a roast chicken vendor whom NOW previously interviewed on Friday. “The people who died from Assir’s side were also good people, but they got brainwashed.”

“Fine, the army got rid of Assir, but they left us with the [Hezbollah-affiliated] Resistance Brigades, who are also thugs,” said a resident living just outside the mosque complex. “We want all weapons to be with the state only. We don’t want Hezbollah’s ‘resistance,’ because their idea of resistance is a lie.”

Others disagreed. “We are with the army and Hezbollah to stop Israel, which is the real enemy,” said a sweets vendor, who claimed to be Sunni although his arm bore a tattoo of Zulfiqar, the sword of Imam Ali, the reverence of whom is most commonly associated with Shiite Islam. “We love [Syrian President] Bashar [al-Assad], because he gave full support to us during the fight against Israel. In Lebanon, there is too much segregation, between Sunnis and Shiites, etc., but the army is united. Priority number one is to follow the army.”

Just meters away, NOW encountered a group of youths whose views could scarcely have been more different.

“Today, we are sad, because we are pro-Assir. This army is not a Lebanese army, it’s Hezbollah’s and Iran’s army,” said one.

Asked what they think Assir – whose whereabouts remain unknown – will do next, they spoke enthusiastically of revenge.

“God willing, he is in Syria now. Hopefully he’ll finish off the [Assad] regime and then come back,” said one.

“This is not the end, this is just the beginning,” said another. “The Free Syrian Army will come back and help Assir defeat Hezbollah. For Syrian people, Hezbollah is now the number one enemy, even more than Bashar. Syrians remember how in 2006 they took in Lebanese refugees with hospitality, and now those same refugees are killing them in Syria.”

Nor, despite Assir’s vow to stay in the mosque until “martyrdom,” were these supporters disappointed by his decision to flee. “He fled because if he was martyred yesterday, his movement would be finished. He only lost the battle, not the war.”

Others, too, gave indications that further unrest may yet be in store for Abra.

“People are only hating each other even more now,” said the chicken vendor. “Earlier today, there was a fight between a Sunni and a Shiite. Later, a Shiite youth walked past us and made a ‘victory’ sign.”

Indeed, for the first time since Assir’s movement gained local prominence in late 2011, on Tuesday Hezbollah supporters were able to openly display their allegiance. As NOW spoke to the youths, a car drove down the busy main thoroughfare playing a loud recording of a fiery speech by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. And on the devastated parallel street, one block away from the Bilal bin Rabah mosque, a large Hezbollah flag appeared on a balcony – apparently the same balcony that had been attacked by Assir’s gunmen a week earlier, sparking the clashes that anticipated the heavier ones that followed on Sunday.

“They’re humiliating us,” said a car mechanic, referring to the flag. “Doesn’t Hezbollah have weapons? Doesn’t the Amal Movement have weapons? OK, then, why am I as a Sunni not allowed to have weapons?”

It was precisely such sentiments of sectarian victimhood that Assir repeatedly emphasized in his weekly sermons and public speeches. Evidently, the frustrations that fuelled his movement have not disappeared with him.

Yara Chehayed contributed reporting.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Sidon's civilians trapped in war zone

[Originally posted at NOW]

As intense gunfights engulfed the city of Sidon Monday between partisans of Salafist cleric Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir and the Lebanese army – reportedly with assistance from Hezbollah-affiliated militias – the majority of civilians in and around the flashpoint Abra neighborhood remained trapped in their homes for the second consecutive day. While the army advanced on and eventually entered Assir’s heavily-fortified mosque complex in the heart of Abra, incurring at least sixteen casualties in the process, NOW spoke to a number of local residents who told of harrowing ordeals endured in the past twenty-four hours.

“This whole situation is absolutely too much for a human being to handle,” said Hiba Lateef, who spoke from her house just a couple of blocks away from Assir’s Bilal bin Rabah mosque. “I’ve been stuck in my corridor since yesterday afternoon. The bombardment has been unbelievable, tremendously terrifying.”

“We have a food supply here but we’ve been unable to reach the kitchen at times, it’s been that bad. And on top of that, there’s no electricity. We were on [the] generator from yesterday until about 11am today, and then it ran out of fuel. So now we don’t have any electricity at all.”

Others have fared worse. Sara Hammoud was hiding in the stairwell outside her Abra apartment Sunday when she heard a deafening bang inside. “It wasn’t quite a rocket, but it was some kind of big bullet that flew into my kitchen,” she told NOW. After spending the night too afraid to enter the house again, on Monday she and her family appealed to a nearby army unit on the street to cover them as they fled by car to Jezzine, and from there to Beirut.

Escape, however, has not been possible for most of Abra’s residents, according to Mayor Walid Mshantaf, who was himself unable to leave home Sunday. “The army has managed to make escape routes in some cases,” he told NOW. “But because of the shooting, most people are trapped in their houses.”

“We’re also facing problems from snipers, and civilians being caught in between them. Some people were even taken as hostages by militiamen for protection.”

Mshantaf said he could not confirm how many civilian casualties have been incurred, referring NOW to Red Cross figures, the latest of which put the number of injured at 78.

Even those not in the mosque’s immediate vicinity faced bombardment, especially those exposed to the Haaret Saida neighborhood to the southwest.

“We’re not close to Bilal bin Rabah, we’re facing the Haara,” said Basma Khayyat. “Yet this afternoon things were extremely terrible. Our building was hit by bombs coming from Haara, I think from the [Hezbollah-affiliated] Resistance Brigades, and our water tanks were all completely destroyed. We also had snipers under our building, and the army was trying to figure out where they were, and so they were just bombing all around us,” she told NOW.

Nor did the comparative distance from the center of the fighting make escape any easier.

“We called the Red Cross and told them we have two children and asked them to take us out, and they said, ‘Just stay in your place, we can’t reach you.’ We called the army, because we have numbers for some soldiers that we know, and they told us the same. We called politicians, and other powerful people we knew, and no one was able to take us out.”

Like many people in their predicament, Khayyat’s family was only able to get away by taking a risk during a lull in the clashes.

“After we realized no one could help us, we made our own decision to leave. We packed bags and waited for it to get a little bit quieter, then went out. We saw soldiers who were shooting, and they told us to get back inside, but we didn’t listen to them and took the back roads to the mountains.”

And, while the battle calmed somewhat Monday evening after the army’s takeover of Assir’s headquarters, sporadic sniper and RPG fire continued to keep many housebound.

“Lots of people are still stuck there and are unable to get out” said Khayyat. “Some people’s children are not with them; they were doing different activities; they were in different places. Some wives cannot reach their husbands. I have a colleague who was living two buildings away from me, we were talking together on WhatsApp, and then her phone switched off. I’m sending her messages but she’s not responding.”

“I’m worried, I don’t know what’s happening. I just hope everything will be better soon.”

Some of the above names have been changed at the interviewees’ requests.

Yara Chehayed contributed reporting.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Sidon residents brace for further violence

[Originally posted at NOW]

Damage to the outer walls of Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir's mosque complex in Abra, which one of his gunmen said was caused by RPG fire from Haaret Saida (NOW/Alex Rowell)

Rina Hassan has only just returned to her apartment in Sidon’s Abra neighborhood, four days after fleeing heavy gun battles that raged on her street between partisans of Salafist cleric Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir and those of the Hezbollah-affiliated Resistance Brigades, leaving one dead.

“When it started, [Assir’s] fighters were under my house. They blocked the street with burning oil so no cars could get in or out, and then began firing RPGs and machine guns non-stop. For two hours, I sat in the corner of my bedroom because it was the only room with no windows.”

Terrified and alone in the house, Hassan then received a call from her son imploring her to come to the comparative safety of his restaurant nearby, which has an underground kitchen.

“He came to my front door and said, ‘Close your eyes, don’t look around, it will just take two minutes.’ Getting there was a real risk. We stayed for two more hours in that kitchen with two fighters outside firing M16s at any car that approached.”

When negotiations between Assir and the city’s Mufti, Sheikh Salim Sousan, brought the fighting to a close, Hassan decided to leave Sidon for her native southern village.

“I called a friend who had a friend involved with Assir’s movement, and he told us of a safe exit route. We had to tell them exactly what cars we would be in so they would know it was us. Many people in Abra were doing the same thing.”

“Today, I returned to Sidon, because I heard that Assir had agreed to postpone any military action for now. But I’ve prepared a bag in the house. The moment I feel tensions are rising again, I’ll get out of here.”

Hassan’s attitude is a widespread one in the city today, which residents fear could become the site of increasingly frequent and bloody clashes in future. Sheikh Maher Hammoud, a pro-Hezbollah cleric who survived an alleged assassination attempt in Sidon earlier this month, accused Assir on Thursday of wanting to turn Sidon into a “new Tripoli,” referring to the northern city that for years has witnessed repeated bouts of deadly sectarian violence.

Certainly, Abra locals NOW spoke to on Friday felt worse was yet to come. “There will be clashes again, of course,” said a roast chicken vendor directly across the street from Assir’s Bilal bin Rabah mosque. “Sheikh Assir agreed to postpone them until after school examinations [concluding on 6 July]. Next time, the fighting will be more intense, yes.”

Assir himself also appears to be taking precautions. The side-street leading up to his mosque now sports a new metal barrier, flanked by heavy concrete blocks and sandbags. A friendly young man, possibly in his teens, raises the barrier to allow a car to enter the complex. Like the two men standing on the corner behind him, he carries an AK-47, evidently undeterred by the heavy deployment of Lebanese Army troops on the adjacent street below. No, he says, we can’t take photos of him. But if we like, we can snap the large new holes on the building’s exterior – the results, he claims, of RPGs fired by the Resistance Brigades from Haaret Saida, the predominantly Shiite quarter two kilometers to the southwest.

In Haaret Saida, where Hezbollah and Amal flags line the streets, another restaurateur initially shrugs off the prospect of further clashes before launching an animated speech about how dangerous they could become.

“The problem of sectarian hatred here is huge. In Sidon, we have every sect: Sunnis, Shiites, Druze, Christians, Palestinians. These Islamists are playing with fire. Since when did they care about school exams? Are children’s exams more important than children dying?”

NOW also spoke to the mayor of Haaret Saida, Samih al-Zein, who was the target of a public death threat from the celebrity Assir partisan, former pop singer Fadel Shaker.

“I made a formal complaint to the judiciary,” he said with regards to the threat. “The attorney general and the security apparatus will deal with this. We don’t have a personal reaction – we won’t sink to that level.”

Al-Zein played down the possibility of further clashes, implying that Hezbollah and Amal would seek to avoid confronting Assir.

“We won’t respond [to further provocations] because we won’t give them the chance to have sectarian fitna [strife].” He added that Assir’s movement was “too small to attack us.”

That is, in effect, the view shared by analyst Hazem al-Amin, author of The Lonely Salafi, who told NOW the chances of Sidon’s violence reaching the levels seen in Tripoli are slim at the moment.

“Assir is weaker than his opponents in Sidon, and the deciding party is Hezbollah, not Assir. If Hezbollah wants to create tension, it will. However, Sidon is an important road to the South, so it is not now in their interests to create clashes there.”

Al-Amin added the situation in Sidon would be largely determined by events in Syria.

“We’re operating on Syrian realities. The essential [factor in Tuesday’s clashes] was the results that Hezbollah has had in [Syria]. This has created a tense environment, which will continue and maybe increase – but the full-on explosion isn’t for now.”

Some of the above names have been changed at interviewees’ requests.

Yara Chehayed and Maya Gebeily contributed reporting.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

A crack in the Aoun-Hezbollah alliance?

[Originally posted at NOW]

Analysts say Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria is stirring unease among its Christian allies

In an unusual and perhaps suggestive departure from his party’s typical talking points, caretaker Energy Minister and senior Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) member, Gebran Bassil, launched a bitter attack Tuesday on his staunch political ally Hezbollah, accusing them of having “stabbed us and stabbed democracy.”

The remarks, given in an interview with the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, referred specifically to Hezbollah’s backing of a decision to extend the term of Lebanon’s parliament. However, Bassil further criticized Hezbollah’s military intervention in the neighboring Syrian conflict, saying such a move brought “problems to Lebanon that are not in [Lebanon’s] interests.” He also said the move jeopardized the country’s important economic relations with Gulf Arab states.

Indeed, these latter comments may be the more significant ones. For while Bassil stressed that any disagreements between the FPM and Hezbollah “would not affect the strategic alliance between the two parties,” analysts with whom NOW spoke said there was reason to believe Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria has stirred considerable anxiety among the FPM’s Christian base.

“Lebanese Maronites are divided, but despite their differences they have a common vision for Lebanon,” said Hilal Khashan, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. “They see Lebanon as a citadel of freedom and they enjoy their Lebanese way of life. They are aware that Hezbollah’s entry into Syria will backfire, and actually has begun to backfire already.”

“What can Hezbollah’s Maronite allies do when wave after wave of Sunni jihadists converge on Lebanon from Syria? They see the threat. [Hezbollah leader] Hassan Nasrallah and the rest of Hezbollah don’t see it, because they are driven by millenarian aspirations and they cannot say no to the quasi-infallible Supreme Leader of Iran. So while Hezbollah feels it is on the side of the winner, [FPM leader Michel] Aoun and Bassil are beginning to feel that their alliance with Hezbollah may bring about a disaster for Lebanon.”

While not necessarily an accurate indicator of the party mood, posts on the FPM-affiliated ‘Orange Room’ web forum do provide some evidence of this unease. A poll last week, titled, “Was it right of Hezbollah to enter the Syrian war?” yielded a divided response, with 53 percent saying yes and a slightly smaller 47 percent no. Several commenters echoed the points made by Khashan, with one, for example, writing, “By entering the Syrian war, it is my opinion that [Hezbollah] took a bad decision and might have opened the Pandora[‘s] box.” Another said, “We should let the Syrians fix their mess on their own… [Hezbollah’s] involvement will ***** [sic] Lebanon in the end.”

Bassil’s comments about deteriorating ties with Gulf states may also have touched on many FPM members’ concerns. Earlier this month, Saudi media reported that Gulf citizens had been advised by their governments not to travel to “unsafe” Lebanon – a development to which Bassil alluded in the interview, saying, “We say to the [Gulf Arabs] come to Lebanon this summer, because we cannot imagine a summer without their presence among us.”

“That’s another factor, obviously,” said Charles Chartouni, a professor of politics at the Université Saint-Joseph and the Lebanese University. “It’s a question of major financial interests. [Aoun’s] people are not ready to compromise their jobs, their financial interests, for the sake of a political agenda. This is something that is even causing disagreement among the Shiites,” he told NOW.

Khashan agrees, adding that the considerable Lebanese diaspora in the Gulf – and the many FPM voters among them – may be growing increasingly concerned for their financial security. “There are half a million Lebanese in the Gulf, and the percentage of Christians among them is quite high. And Lebanese Christians have excellent positions over there, and Aoun is putting them in the way of harm.”

Ultimately, no analyst NOW spoke to believed the FPM-Hezbollah alliance is under serious threat for the moment. But, in Khashan’s view, it will not last forever.

“I’m not saying the alliance between Hezbollah and the FPM is coming to an end now. But it is an awkward one… between two groups that felt marginalized in Lebanese politics at the time [in 2006]. Two groups coming together for negative reasons are not expected to develop a healthy alliance. It’s an alliance based on contradictions. Needless to say, such an alliance is bound to come to an end at one time or another.”

Monday, June 17, 2013

Kidnap This!

[Originally posted at NOW, co-written with Anthony Elghossain, with interactive map]

To the outsider, Lebanon may not sound like an obvious tourist destination at this exact point in time. There’s no government; deadly gun battles are a near-daily occurrence, some of them in major city centers; and the entire eastern border zone seems to have voluntarily thrown itself into Syria’s civil war.

Yet Lebanon is still Lebanon – a snow-capped Mediterranean jewel whose majesty has confounded poets since the days of Homer. Defying the rockets, the embassies’ travel advice, and the non-remote possibility of kidnapping, two NOW writers set out on Thursday, 6 June, to scale the twin peaks of Mount Lebanon and discover nine hidden treasures scattered among them.

Anthony – 10:06 am

“You’re crazy,” the soldier says, casually rummaging through my satchel. “This trip won’t work. And the situation in Lebanon is sensitive right now. It’s sunny… Just go to the beach, brother.”

“Thanks for the warning.”

We’re late… Of course we’re late. Having planned to leave at 8:30 a.m., more than an hour ago, we haven’t even left Beirut. Alex—a gargantuan Englishman blessed with a fetish for all things Arabia—is waiting near an Applebee’s on stretch of highway just north of the capital. Meanwhile, Anthony—that’s me, a diminutive Lebanese-American with a healthy Napoleonic complex—is chatting with a troublesomely curious soldier. “OK,” he nods. “Get going.”

Racing onto the highway at 10:06 a.m., we can’t resist the Starbucks a mere twelve minutes down the road. Lebanon, you see, is in the midst of another of its periodic, seemingly perpetual, convulsions. To conquer the place—its terrain, microclimates, and peoples—we must first conquer our hangovers. Armed with coffee and contempt for those who’d doubt us or stand in our way we roar: “Kidnap this!”


Our journey starts like any other: a highway, thinly veiled excitement, and music. Chris Malinchak and Daft Punk blare on the radio, but we’ll soon lose signal. Fortunately, Alex of Arabia has brought some tunes. Unfortunately, he’s chosen some obscure Iraqi artist—Ilham, the great ones need no surnames—to serenade us with incessant wails about “the apples of Syria” and the “dates of Basra.” Meanwhile, we’re ascending the northern reaches of a Mount Lebanon rich in purportedly Syrian apples and villagers who’d distrust accents from across the valley—let alone the deserts of Iraq.

Searching for Balou Balaa, a gorge sandwiched between two Cedar forests in the heights above Jbeil and Batroun, we seem to have taken the “scenic route”—local parlance for a wrong turn. We’ve now been careening up and down the mountain for nearly two hours. Racing from promising road to promising road, we’re unable to find it. “You passed the turn,” a helpful soldier explains. “Drive back and slow down… Watch for a sign.”

Imagine that... a sign.

We park at the end of a narrow gravel path and descend the stone-cut stairs. A minute later, we see it in the distance. “Beautiful,” observes Alex, with English understatement. “You could spend a whole day up here… Maybe have a picnic.”

“Or an evening,” I volunteer. “With different company?”

Soon, we’re at a deceptively majestic gorge—perhaps touched by the quality of roads leading here, the Ministry of Tourism calls it a “pothole”—marked by three natural bridges, a waterfall, orange rock, stubborn bands of greenery, and a portal to the skies.

Thinking of the fierce mountain warriors in my blood, I venture to the other side—and nearly fall twice. No matter… Alex has presciently collected my car keys. “Just in case.” We snap pictures, answer nature’s call, and scale the steps back to the road. The mountain, though cool and shaded, makes us sweat.


“Turn up the mountain and just follow the road,” says Tanious, smiling in the sun. “And drive me to the next village, if you please.”

“Yalla,” we offer, smirking helplessly. “Hop in.” We’re late, ever so late, but Tanious has been helpful and has invited us to lunch about four times. More importantly, our new friend is as old as salt—and we’d have felt horrible leaving him by the road.

Besides, Lebanon isn’t going anywhere. The lands ahead of us have survived conquest, war, intrigue, and—no small feat—the Lebanese themselves. Declining lunch, we resume our journey.


Alex – 11:45 a.m

For all his contemptuous talk of the mighty Ilham’s “obscurity”, I begin to wonder if I can’t detect a reluctant affection for the smoke-tarred, whisky-soaked Voice of Iraq stirring somewhere in Anthony as we roar skyward to Bsharre, in pursuit of the resting place-turned-museum of the distinctly non-obscure poet, Khalil Gibran.

Stepping inside the former monastery overlooking the breathtaking Qadisha Valley, with the “Cedars of God” just a few hundred meters above us, we proceed to browse the few dozen oil paintings and paper scribblings that are what remain of his original output.

I’m relieved to find he’s a finer painter than poet (though I’ll take Samir Kassir’s word for it that he was “above all other things a master of the Arabic language – and only secondarily of English”). My decision to share this finding with Anthony, whose state of reverence resembles that of an Orthodox Jew squaring up to the Western Wall, leads him to not talk to me for a very long time.

Anthony – 1:00 p.m

Turning away from the Lebanon of imagination—a sweeping landscape of mountains, stark red-tile roofs, and soothing seas—we’re suddenly at, or above, the gates of Arabia.

Just a hairpin turn away from the Mediterranean, the mountains drop into the Beqaa Valley, named after its patchy farmland. Over centuries, innumerable tribes rose and fell here. Saladin was born dozens of kilometers away, in Baalbek, where Hezbollah and assorted cartel kings now hold court. The Phoenicians, and the seas they sailed, fade from memory. We’re with the clans now.

And we’re certainly with Hezbollah. Having scarcely reached the plain, we spot a group of armed men—perhaps twenty—draped in fatigues, black shirts, and the bright yellow of the Party of God. “It’s probably another funeral,” I say, ever the expert.

“Maybe,” Alex ponders. “Or maybe they’re deploying in the area. That man looks ready to stop some people.” As if on cue, a scrawny man struts across the highway with an AK-47 slung across his torso.

“We could always ask,” I offer, with only some confidence.



We pass village after village, martyr after martyr, shrine after shrine. In the last few decades, the Beqaa has morphed from a pristine plain into a collection of shantytowns, mansions, and political posters—quite boring, for a brief moment. “The Hermel Pyramid is well worth the trip,” Alex notes. “And we’ll get to see Qusayr.”

Shockingly, we’ve been driving through the Beqaa for hours and not a single soldier has asked us why we’re heading north. In fact, most checkpoints are unmanned.

At the pyramid, now tarred by graffiti, we glimpse Qusayr. Just past the foothills of the Anti-Lebanon mountains, the town is exposed; little wonder it has been pummeled by conflict over the past few months.

A plume of smoke rises in the distance—is it a bomb or rocket? We take pictures but, for once, aren’t particularly eager to explore. Time to head south. Ilham’s singing about insomnia; we join him.

Alex – 3:30 p.m

Having hastily vacated the Hermel vicinity—successfully losing, in the process, the plateless, tinted-windowed jeep that had just happened to be driving behind us—we point ourselves south, aiming next for Riyaq, site of a long-defunct train station that, in happier times, would take the Lebanese to Palestine, Syria, and even Istanbul.

Getting there would involve navigating the 80km stretch of dusty tarmac that functions as the spine of the Beqaa. It’s effectively lawless terrain—though we were blissfully unaware at the time, a man was kidnapped that very afternoon in the adjacent town of Ras Baalbek—but Anthony, seemingly abandoning his staunchly agnostic inclinations and reverting to a primal clan-warrior state, invokes the God of his childhood and nods confidently. “I got my reasons,” he growls by way of explanation.

Divine intervention or not, we make it to the Riyaq station unscathed, where the first sign of human life is a crudely spray-painted Syrian flag at the entrance—left over from the occupation that forced the station’s closure in 1976. This sets the tone well for what is to come, as we tread the overgrown grass around the rotting train cars—many still bearing the emblem of Chemin de Fer de l’Etat Libanais (CEL), the old state railway operator—trying not to trample on the shards of glass and clay, shattered by Syrian troops’ looting.

“They came and wouldn’t even let me sit here anymore,” croaks a bony, white-haired, leather-skinned man sitting on a plastic chair, ostensibly the security guard. “They wrecked it all.”

“But they got what they deserved now!” he adds with a wheezy chuckle. As we bid him thanks and walk away, he mutters, as though reciting a proverb: “Don’t oppress, or God will send you a worse oppressor…”


With the old man’s words sitting uncomfortably in our guts—which were already painful enough from having not eaten a thing all day—we make for nearby Zahle; capital of the Beqaa, fabled producer of araq, and also Anthony’s hometown.

Indeed, my companion’s rejuvenated faith is more congruous here, in the city once known (according to Kamal Salibi) as the “shield of the Christians, terror of the Druze”; a name derived from its unique status as the only Christian dwelling never to fall to Druze attackers in the infamous sectarian war of 1841, and the last one to do so in the even bloodier 1860 sequel. It’s also notable for lying on the former Ottoman border between the Mount Lebanon mutasarrifate and the sanjaq of Damascus: driving downhill toward the eastern part of the city, you can literally feel where one ended and the other began at the point the road abruptly turns horizontal.

Not that Anthony has time for any suggestion of Zahle being a “mid-way point” between Beirut and Damascus. “We’re going to meet my dad, we’re going to eat kibbeh neyye, and you’re going to shut your trap about the goddamn shared cultural values.” I bristle, though once we’re settled by the banks of the Berdawni river, and the araq sends a pulse of consoling warmth down my gums, I do as I’m told.

Anthony – 8:17 p.m

By Lebanese standards, we’re rushing through the end of our lunch-turned-dinner. My father looks at me, in his way, as if to suggest that Washington has changed me—heaven forbid we skip a third round of dessert and coffee. Alex, bursting with glee and fresh fruit, merely smiles. “Shall we?”

The sun has set. Our universe is now defined by the meager reach of our headlights: fresh asphalt, a coiling road, the twinkling lights of the once-virgin Beqaa and stars above, and lavender lining the way. It’s all quite enchanting—well, as enchanting as possible when a Lebanese-American and Englishman nearly drive off a cliff to the wails of an Iraqi man.

With the Beqaa fading in the rearview, we find ourselves—instantly, unsuspectingly—staring towards Lebanon’s coast, with city and sea shimmering in the night. As we fumble with our cameras, failing to capture what our eyes see, a soldier yells out: “What are you doing?” Emboldened by exhaustion, we ignore him. “What are you doing?” he repeats to us, the latest set of conquerors. “What do you want?”

“We may have unsettled him,” Alex suggests, with a hint of kindness. “Perhaps we should leave.”

Alex – 9:30 p.m

“Put that good one on.”

“I’m sorry?”

“The song, the good one. Put it on.”

“What song would that be?”

“You know, ‘Shlon anam al-leil’. That one.”

Well, well. It’s taken just under twelve hours for Anthony to go from dogmatically disparaging the Baghdad Beatle to singing his lyrics from memory—lyrics, moreover, written in what any other self-respecting cross-wielder would regard as a most uncouth dialect.

Then again, perhaps this spirit of tolerance has something to do with our next port of call being the synagogue of Deir al-Qamar, the Jerusalem of Lebanon in which a 17th-century Jewish prayer house sits yards from a 15th-century mosque, which is in turn surrounded by haggard but sturdy old churches. Bejeweling the green thickets of the Chouf mountain, this was the capital of Ottoman Lebanon, jointly administered by Christian and Druze notables in an arrangement that anticipated the sectarian power-sharing headache of today.

The Jews for whom the synagogue was built were in fact North Africans fleeing the Andalusian Inquisition in the early 1700s. But they were to fall foul of Christians again in 1848, and were forced to relocate to Sidon and Beirut, where they didn’t last especially long either. The building today, though in great shape, has had all religious markings removed from the exterior, and of course nobody actually uses it. Like the Riyaq station, it’s a mostly sorry sight, a testament to a vanished Levant in which Jew, Muslim, and Christian could freely visit and live in one another’s cities, unencumbered by the borders that would later become their barricades.

Anthony – 11:00 p.m

Cruising into Beirut, we feel the Levant reemerge: The humid air bustles with noise; crammed roads fill with people and scents both lovely and foul; and the city, rising in the distance, unfolds as a hodge-podge of architectures, styles, and tongues.

Sighing with relief, we bank from the highway and into the reconstructed city center, past a planned—and rather sterile—neighborhood that now divides Beirut like the Green Line never could. For a few blocks, a pattern emerges: restored mosque, restored church, ruins, restored office, restored hotel—all nice, all empty. Maneuvering past some idiot drivers, we land in Gemmayze and the burgeoning district of Mar Mikhael.

“Almaza,” one of us shouts above the din at Internazionale, a Mar Mikhael bar as layered with influences—chill, funk, hipster, Dragonfly, Kayan—as the city it calls home. The bartender obliges. Waiting for friends, with a voyage behind us and a night ahead, we grin. “You couldn’t see all of Lebanon in a lifetime,” Alex says, draining his beer.

True… but you can spend a day trying. And what a day it’ll be.


Someone – 3:15 a.m


Alex Rowell is a reporter at NOW. Anthony Elghossain is an attorney at a global law firm based in Washington, DC. Follow them on Twitter @aelghossain and @disgraceofgod

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Speaking on Monocle 24 about Hizbullah in Syria

I spoke on Monocle 24 radio again on Friday, this time about Hizbullah's involvement in Syria. The episode is available here (I come on at 11:30).

Israel's shameless trashing of the futile 'peace process'

[Originally posted at NOW]

One of the surest ways, it seems, to increase the rate of Israeli colonization of Palestinian land is for a senior White House official to declare a new round of attempts to resolve – or, at least, attempts to agree to attempt to resolve – the modern Middle East’s oldest and most exasperating quarrel.

It happened in 2010 when the comparatively high hopes of Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to the Holy Land were summarily quashed by news from Tel Aviv that 1,600 new Jewish-only homes were to be constructed in the Arab half of Jerusalem.

And it’s happened again this week when, less than a month after Secretary of State John Kerry put American credibility (and four billion dollars) on the line in his own trip to the region – in which he warned explicitly against “changes on the ground,” i.e., another Israeli construction spree – the Israelis apparently just couldn’t help themselves, and filed plans for more than 500 new homes in the ultra-religious settlement of Itamar, 28 kilometers east of the Green Line by the city of Nablus, right in the heart of the West Bank.

Intriguingly, unlike the 2010 humiliation, there wasn’t even a show of contrition from Tel Aviv this time. Nor should anyone have expected one, when just Tuesday Prime Minister Netanyahu assured his nation that, “Construction in communities in Judea and Samaria [Bible-speak for Palestine] will continue, and is continuing still today.”

Dismissing the idea that this broad-daylight land theft could conceivably complicate Kerry’s task, Netanyahu asserted that, “The real question is whether there is or isn’t a willingness [among the Palestinians] to accept a Jewish state” – which is an odd thing to say, considering the PLO has publicly advocated a two-state solution since 1988.

As though to remove any lingering doubt about the mendacity of his argument, Netanyahu went on to complain about the intolerability of Palestinian pre-conditions for negotiations (chief of which is a mere halt, not even a reversal, of the settlement frenzy), before demanding that any hypothetical future Palestinian state would be fully demilitarized, entrusting the security of its population to the very army that is currently confiscating its land. You can’t make this stuff up.

This round of the ‘peace process’ will fail, and when it does, Kerry and Obama will shrug, and tell the world they tried. Meanwhile, American taxpayers will continue to subsidize the creation and expansion of theocratic colonies built to hasten the advent of the Messiah, as well as the paramilitary equipment that settles any disputes that may arise with the natives. It will be a wholly fitting legacy for an administration whose only discernable policy for the Arab world has been one of uniform, perfect indifference to its suffering.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A regime so "leftist", it hosts the most right-wing man in Britain

[Originally posted at NOW]

Within hours of the savage butchery of a British soldier by a British citizen in Woolwich, East London, three weeks ago today, a hundred or so portly football enthusiasts congregated outside a local pub, costumed in balaclavas and England flags, to bellow semi-coherently about the demerits of “the Muslim scum” as well as to attack the very police force that had apprehended and arrested the soldier’s loathsome murderers.

The leader of these fine exemplars of contemporary British culture, who goes by the pseudonym Tommy Robinson, is habitually denounced for his craven, limp-wristed moderation by Nicholas Griffin, the British National Party leader, Holocaust denier, and Member of the European Parliament who has been spending quality time this week in Damascus as the guest of the Bashar al-Assad regime. Granted, says Griffin, Robinson may be perfectly sound on the question of the evil (or should that be ‘The Innocence’?) of Muslims. But he hopelessly fails to grasp the utter subservience of Downing Street to the machinations of global Jewry (euphemized by Griffin in public, though not in private, as “Zionism”).

Which is by no means all the man has in common with Hezbollah. Griffin’s is the instinctive bigotry of the parochial white reactionary, whose revulsion for foreigners is proportionate to the “alienness” of their appearance. Since Lebanese Shiites have shorter beards than Syrian Sunnis (and Assad doesn’t have one at all!), he’s cast his lot with the former, whom he said via Twitter were “doing [a] better job than the [London police] dealing with ‘British’ Jihadi cut-throats.” That Hezbollah fighters are themselves jihadists is evidently of scant concern – like the Israeli military establishment before him, Griffin has concluded that some ‘terrorists’ are more terrorist than others.

Surprised though some may have been to see the leader of Britain’s ultra-right shaking hands with the prime minister of a regime better known for befriending George Galloway, the contradiction only exists if you imagine Assad and his gargoyles were remotely “leftist” in the first place. From the first day of the uprising, Assad’s policy has been one of maximum violence, deliberately targeting the men, women and children of the Sunni majority sect. A seasoned hatemonger and thug like Griffin ought to feel right at home.

Embassy killing may herald hardened Hezbollah stance

[Originally posted at NOW]

Analysts fear new threats to freedom of expression after the Sunday killing of a peaceful student demonstrator.

Were it not for the young man in the bulletproof vest, leaning confidently on the butt of his AK-47 under the awning by the entrance, the La Diva building would have looked no different than any other apartment block in the elegant Mar Taqla neighborhood of Hazmiyeh, overlooking Beirut and the Mediterranean from the hills to the south-east.

As it happens, though, the multi-story building is the headquarters of the Lebanese Option (LO) Party, a small Shiite group opposed to the Hezbollah-Amal duopoly that wields almost total political control of Lebanon’s largest religious minority. NOW paid the office a visit Tuesday afternoon during condolences held for Hisham Salman, the 28 year-old head of the party’s student faction who was shot dead by presumed Hezbollah affiliates during a protest Sunday outside Beirut’s Iranian embassy. With reports of further harassment of LO members following the killing, Salman’s comrades were evidently taking few chances on security.

Inside, the walls of a large room on the ground floor had been lined with thick wooden chairs, some of them occupied by solemn men and women dressed in black. The party’s leader, Ahmad al-Assaad, was busy greeting those had come to offer their condolences, so NOW spoke in an adjacent office to Abir al-Assaad, the party’s youth chancellor who is also Ahmad’s wife.

“It was a peaceful demonstration, to oppose the decision to involve Hezbollah in Syria’s battles,” she told NOW. “We never imagined it would be dangerous, we had full permission from the interior ministry and notified them five days in advance. We thought this was Lebanon, we are allowed to say whatever we want.”

Instead, according to an LO statement as well as eyewitness accounts, the demonstrators had scarcely alighted from the bus on which they arrived before they were confronted by dozens of men wearing black shirts and yellow armbands, who beat them with batons and then fired on them. Salman was shot in the back, legs, and stomach, dying shortly afterward.

Though the identities of the gunmen have not been confirmed, they are widely believed to be affiliated with Hezbollah, the militia-cum-party with strong political, ideological, and financial ties to Tehran. Dr. Imad Salamey, professor of political science at the Lebanese American University, pointed to the fact that Hezbollah prevented Salman’s body from being buried in his hometown’s cemetery as further evidence implicating the Party in his death. Both the Hezbollah press spokesperson and the Iranian embassy declined to comment on the incident to NOW.

“They can only be those opposing our beliefs, which means either Hezbollah or the Iranian Revolutionary Guards,” said al-Assaad. “Whether they were Hezbollah members or just ‘supporters’ is irrelevant to us, the effect is the same.”

One of several unusual features of the story is that recent months have seen Hezbollah exercise notable restraint against Lebanese critics, some of whom – such as Sidonian Salafist Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir – have been far more physically provocative than the nonviolent, relatively obscure LO.

“Maybe it’s because we are Shiites,” said al-Assaad when NOW asked why the response had been so singularly violent in this case. “It’s forbidden to be a liberal Shiite who opposes the Party of God.”

“Or maybe the Iranian embassy is a holy site,” she jokes, alluding to Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria on the pretext of defending the Sayyida Zeinab shrine in Damascus.

Indeed, the Party’s unprecedented decision to send thousands of fighters to the inter-Arab war next door – and the hundreds of casualties incurred as a result – may be compelling it to take a firmer stance against internal dissent, according to Salamey.

“There’s blood on the ground,” he told NOW. “Hezbollah has lost a lot of people, and tensions are running high. They feel they’re in an existential struggle, in which they either live or die. So whoever opposes them now is being portrayed as part of the conspiracy against them, in which case justifying their extermination becomes easy.”

Accordingly, Salman’s killing may be a message from Hezbollah that the prior period of restraint with critics is over.

“This is very new for Lebanon, what happened in front of the Iranian embassy. We’ve never seen anything like this before. And it has very strong implications for the right to protest, the right to peaceful assembly. It’s the first time we see such a violent reaction to people voicing their views toward a particular policy.”

“This is the political culture sponsored by the Iranian brand of theocracy. What happened in Iran in 2009 is now being carried out by Iran’s supporters in Lebanon.”

Maya Gebeily and Yara Chehayed contributed reporting.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

When resistances collide

[Originally posted at NOW]

While reports last week of Hamas members in Lebanon being ordered by Hezbollah security officials to leave the country have since proven false, they have nonetheless revived questions about the state of relations between the Palestinian Sunni Islamist militia-cum-party and its Lebanese Shiite Islamist counterpart.

Having both firmly sided with opposing camps in the Syrian conflict raging next door, the two nominal allies appear to be straining to preserve what they can of a relationship increasingly challenged by political and sectarian differences.

The official line was summed up by former Hezbollah MP Hassan Hoballah, who said Friday that, “What brings us together, in terms of our hostility towards the Zionist entity, is greater than a dispute over the […] situation in Syria.” This was echoed by Hamas’ spokesperson in Lebanon, Ali Baraka, in a phone call to NOW.

However, Baraka also admitted to NOW that, “Of course, relations are not like they were in previous years.” Moreover, he explicitly condemned Hezbollah’s now-publicly acknowledged military intervention in Syria on behalf of the Assad regime, saying, “We are against [it], just as we are against any foreign intervention in the Syrian conflict.”

That includes intervention by Hamas, Baraka added, responding to allegations that the group is training and even fighting alongside the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Damascus and Aleppo. While no hard evidence has surfaced to support the accusations, they appear to be believed by some Hezbollah fighters themselves. Upon returning from the recent battle for Qusayr in Homs province, one such militant told a newspaper, “There’s a kind of irritating familiarity [in the rebels’ tactics]. Hezbollah taught Hamas all those tactics to fight the Israelis. Hamas apparently decided to transfer their experience to takfiri groups [Hezbollah parlance for the FSA].”

Whether true or not, there are certainly other indications of a deepening divorce between Hamas and its fellow members of the so-called ‘Resistance Axis’ – Hezbollah, and the Syrian and Iranian regimes. The London Telegraph reported last Friday that Iran has almost entirely ceased its financial support to Hamas – said to total some £15m ($23m USD) per month – as well as all military cooperation, in retaliation for the latter’s opposition to the Assad regime. (A subsequent article denying this was in turn denied by Hamas’ official website, a website which, significantly, describes the Syrian uprising as a “revolution” and has issued condemnations of regime “massacres” of Palestinian refugees.)

Such developments follow the broader pattern that has emerged since the Syrian uprising began. One month after Hamas’ politburo chairman Khaled Mashaal quietly left his Damascus headquarters in January 2012, the group’s Prime Minister Ismail Haniyah “saluted” the Syrian opposition in a Cairo speech. Mashaal has since based himself in Qatar, whose Emir Hamad al-Thani later paid a visit to Gaza in what was widely interpreted as a message that the Gulf state would henceforth be Hamas’s primary patron.

This new bond with Qatar – which is also among the most forthright sponsors of the Syrian opposition – is likely one reason why Hamas’ relations with the ‘Resistance Axis’ continue to deterioriate, according to Dr. Yezid Sayigh, senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center and former negotiator with Palestinian delegations in peace talks with Israel in the 1990s.

“Clearly Qatar has pledged lots of assistance [to Hamas],” Sayigh told NOW. “It’s possible that there’s been some sort of quid pro quo.”

However, Sayigh said equally significant are domestic pressures on the group in Gaza from friends and rivals alike, most of whom have welcomed the Syrian uprising.

“Having supported the Arab Spring in other countries, especially Egypt, I guess [Hamas] just found it awkward to be supporting the Assad regime, [especially] given that they’re trying to meet challenges in Gaza from people like the Salafists who are more openly supportive of the rebels in Syria.”

Ultimately, beyond Syria, perhaps the larger question is what will become of the ‘Resistance Axis’ now that it appears to have fragmented along political and sectarian lines.

“It’s certainly been weakened,” said Sayigh. “And it’ll be weakened further if the perception grows that this is basically a Shiite axis, or Shiite crescent, connecting the Shiites of Lebanon, Iraq and Iran with the Alawite regime in Syria. If Hamas is the odd one out, that would be very uncomfortable, because they really can’t afford anything that would undermine their [alliances,] with Egypt in particular, but also with the Saudis, who are [still] upset about their takeover of Gaza in 2007. I guess they just don’t have the choice of staying in the Axis of Resistance when almost everyone else sees that in a sectarian way.”

Or, as Dr. Nadim Shehadi, associate fellow at Chatham House, put it to NOW more bluntly:

“Without Hamas, the Axis of Resistance is reduced to a mere sectarian alliance.”

Yara Chehayed contributed reporting.

Speaking on Monocle 24 radio

I spoke on Monocle 24 radio last night about rocket attacks on Lebanon from Syria. The episode is available online here (I come on at 8:20).

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Qusayr families flee to new Lebanon camp

[Originally posted at NOW]

Syrian children play at a new refugee camp in north Lebanon (NOW/Alex Rowell)

Hidden from view behind rows of dark green trees in the verdant farmland surrounding the town of Halba, just 10km from the Syrian border in Lebanon’s far north, dwell the country’s latest refugees from the unrelenting war raging next door. The eighty or so arrivals – mostly women and children – who have sought shelter here in the last four weeks are all residents of Qusayr, fleeing clashes that took an especially fierce turn when regime forces, backed by Lebanese Hezbollah units, launched a major (and ongoing) attempt to conquer the town on May 19. Unusually for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, who typically stay in relatives’ or friends’ homes, these families are housed in tents, comprising an unofficial refugee camp.

Locating the remote camp Thursday with the help of volunteer aid workers, NOW spent an afternoon interviewing the residents, who spoke of violence so horrific that merely surviving the escape to Lebanon was an ordeal.

“We came any way that we could; in cars, trucks, tractors. Accompanied by the Free Syrian Army (FSA), naturally,” said Abdullah, a young man sitting on a thin sponge mattress inside his tent who left Qusayr twenty days ago. “We were under fire from the shabbiha [pro-government militiamen] and Hezbollah.”

Despite living within plain sight of the northeastern Lebanese border, refugees said the presence of Hezbollah forces in the area forced them to make a 40km detour south to the anti-regime town of Arsal, whence they began the longer drive to Halba.

“It took about seven hours on the road,” said Hind, a mother from the village of Zeiteh in another tent sitting with her sister, her mother, and five children. “We were told if the Shiites saw us, they’d either arrest or kill us.”

Having endured two years of warfare – often by relocating to different villages as circumstances required – refugees said it was the unprecedented and terrifying level of violence in recent weeks that compelled them to take flight.

“The destruction there is massive,” said Abdullah. “They’re hitting us with everything; mortars, tanks, MiG fighter jets. There are 100 explosions every minute. They have bombs which can destroy seven houses at a time. Qusayr is just a normal town, what can we do against this?” Air strikes on residential quarters have been frequently captured on video by Qusayr-based activists in recent weeks.

“They’re even using chemical weapons,” says Malik, an elder relative of Abdullah who arrived five days ago. “We’ve seen different colors of smoke – white, yellow, red – with bad smells, and people suffocating.” This echoes a claim made earlier this month by FSA spokesman Louay Almokdad, though no hard evidence has yet emerged to support it.

Despite the regime’s use of such heavy firepower, refugees told NOW the rebels were still holding on to areas of the town and the surrounding countryside.

“It’s back-and-forth,” said Abdullah. “The FSA loses something one day, re-takes it the next.” Relatives still inside the town told him the regime had recently captured a key water station and parts of the al-Dabaa air base. “But the fight is continuing,” he proudly insisted.

Asked what he thought would happen if the town fell entirely to the regime, Abdullah predicted a “humanitarian catastrophe. There are over 30,000 people there, mostly women and children. It’ll be like what happened in Bayda, Baniyas and Houla,” referring to the sites of notorious massacres of civilians. Indeed, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has herself voiced fears of a Bayda-style slaughter in the town if rebel forces are overrun.

Even here in the comparative safety of Lebanon, however, the refugees remain afraid – chiefly of the Hezbollah forces for whom they appear to reserve especial hatred.

“[Syrian President] Bashar [al-Assad] is a pig, but [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah is a bigger one!” exclaimed Ayesha, a sister of Hind who had been silent until that point. As she spoke, her voice rose to a shout, drawing tears from the leathery eyes of her elderly mother next to her.

“We were living in peace, why did the Party of Satan [a play on Hezbollah’s name, the ‘Party of God’] interfere? We are women and children, what do they want with us? Even the regime left us alone in our homes. Bashar is better than them. Even Israel is more merciful than them.”

Security aside, the refugees naturally face humanitarian difficulties as well. Though the camp infrastructure is quickly improving – a concrete toilet with running water and a kitchen unit have sprung up in the last few days – residents have little besides the tents, mattresses and kitchen utensils that have been donated thus far. And with the heat already reaching baking levels, many complained of sickness. There is even a risk of snake attacks – one two-year-old boy’s forearm bore a deep wound from a venomous bite.

Unaware of the procedure and often without the requisite documentation, not a single refugee has registered with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). As such, a small, student-led team of volunteers called Kilna Labaad (‘We’re all for each other’) runs the camp, with funds coming primarily from a wealthy Lebanese individual in Aley.

“We do fundraising events here in Beirut [to supplement the Aley donations],” said Diana Rifai, a Syrian student volunteering with the organization. “We host events for which every ticket bought will provide a monthly food basket for a family, for example, or a children’s box with diapers and baby milk. We also do clothes drives where people can drop off clothes in Beirut.”

The group hopes to have a Facebook page up and running next week. In the meantime, said Rifai, anyone interested in making a donation can contact her via her personal Facebook account.

Some of the above names have been changed at the interviewees’ requests.

Yara Chehayed contributed reporting.