Lebanon simmers by Syria’s side

This article was published by the Independent on Sunday on 2 February, 2014

The arched façade of the shopping centre is still blackened with soot and piles of debris, and building material marks the spot where a suicide bomber detonated his belt, and his car, two weeks ago.

The explosion killed five people; among the 40 more wounded was Ali Shaheen, a pharmacist, who was making coffee at the time of the blast. “Everything collapsed around us,” he recalls. The attack has made residents of Hermel, a “100 per cent Shia” town where Hezbollah reigns supreme, resigned and fearful of a new threat that seems impossible to stop. “When it comes to suicide bombers, neither Hezbollah nor the Lebanese army can prevent such an act,” said Shaheen, a father of three.

Although this is its first suicide bombing, it is not the first time the town has felt the consequences of Hezbollah’s role in the Syrian war. Over 150 rockets have rained down on Hermal and its surroundings over the past two years. Last night, a second suicide bombing hit the town, killing three.

The Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, formally announced that the group was fighting alongside the Syrian army last May, when his forces played a crucial role in expelling rebels from Qusayr, just across the Lebanese border. Since then, five suicide bombings have hit Dahiyeh, a Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut’s southern suburbs.

Read the full article here: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/lebanon-simmers-by-syrias-side-terror-attacks-drag-lebanese-communities-into-neighbours-civil-war-9101654.html

Tensions in Lebanon: Bombs and bust-ups

IN THE evening of February 1st a car bomb killed three people in Hermel, a Shia town that is a Hizbullah stronghold in Lebanon’s east on the border with Syria. The bomb was the second to hit the town in two weeks—the first was on January 16th. Both attacks were claimed by Jabhat al-Nusra, an Al Qaeda affiliate that is fighting against President Bashar Assad in Syria.

Jabhat al-Nusra announced its expansion into Lebanon in December. On January 24th, it declared Hizbullah areas legitimate targets, since the Lebanese Shia movement backs Mr Assad. The day after, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), another Al Qaeda affiliate active in Syria and Iraq, also announced it will start operations in Lebanon.

Hermel’s residents are distraught by the violence rocking their town. “They don’t know religion, they don’t know God,” said Amal Mourtada, a 30-year-old shop assistant of the attackers, as she nursed her bruised face and hand, injuries from the first explosion.

But the townspeople also blame those closer to home for the lot: their fellow Lebanese in the neighbouring town of Arsal.

Arsal, a nearby Sunni border town, has long been a smugglers den, formerly of cigarettes and petrol, now of ammunition, fighters and guns. An early supporter of the Syrian opposition, the town’s concrete buildings are crammed with Syrian refugees, among them rebel fighters who come to Arsal to recuperate. A dingy field hospital receives wounded combatants almost daily.

Arsal, too, has suffered for its role. Syria’s airforce regularly bombs the town’s outskirts.

Surrounded by Shia towns on all sides, Arsal’s only road is often blocked by their angry residents. Arsal’s inhabitants are fearful of these impromptu checkpoints.  “I will be killed or arrested just because I am Sunni and we are helping the Syrians,” says Abed Hassan Hmeil, a 24-year-old quarry worker.

Similarly, Hermel residents fear their Sunni neighbours and their Syrian guests. “I have many friends in Arsal, but they can’t guarantee my safety anymore,” says Muhammed Alaw, a teacher from the town. Mr Alaw says his students are “enraged” by the violence hitting their town, and have been leaving his classroom to fight with Hizbullah in “significant numbers”.

The Shia movement has long argued that it is only fighting in Syria to prevent Islamists targeting its base in Lebanon. With the violence increasing, that argument appears to be winning over former sceptics. Mr Alaw once criticised Hizbullah for fighting in Syria, but has changed his mind. “Can you imagine how many bombs we would have if Qusayr hadn’t fallen [to regime control]?” he says, referring to a border town that Hizbullah helped the Syrian army take back from rebels last June.

Another brewing battle could rock the fragile border towns yet further. Yabrud, a Syrian town that is the only remaining rebel stronghold along the border, is increasingly surrounded by the Syrian army. A fight there could force rebel fighters to retreat to Arsal, bringing a little more of the war with them.

 Read the full post here: http://www.economist.com/blogs/pomegranate/2014/02/tensions-lebanon

Lebanon and the Hariri assassination: no time for justice

The article was published on the Pomegranate blog of The Economist on 16 January, 2014

WHEN the Special Tribunal for Lebanon finally opens its trial today, January 16th, prosecutors in The Hague will address an empty dock. The four suspects who stand accused of carrying out the February 14th 2005 bombing that killed Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others in Beirut will be absent. Equally absent is any sense of excitement about the trial in Lebanon.

Media interest has been largely restricted to outlets owned by the Hariri family, such as Future TV and the Daily Star, a newspaper. Politicians have remained largely silent, wary of causing fights in a country riven by political and sectarian divides. “Is that this week?” a worker at a non-governmental organisation replied when asked about the trial.

The Lebanese have plenty more pressing problems to focus on. There is growing insecurity, including a raft of bombings that have taken on a dangerous tit-for-tat rhythm, reflecting tensions between Sunnis and Shia that have been worsened by the war next door in Syria. The most recent explosion, on December 27th in central Beirut, killed Muhammad Shatah, a former finance minister and ambassador in America. New rumours circulate daily of which areas to avoid. 

Read the whole post here: http://www.economist.com/blogs/pomegranate/2014/01/lebanon-and-hariri-assassination

The Art of Civil War

This article was published by Foreign Policy on 8 May, 2013

BEIRUT — “What period it’s from is not important. I just care how much it’s worth,” says Abu Khader, a smuggler in Majdal Anjar, a small Lebanese town on the Lebanon-Syria border. Smuggling everything from cigarettes to arms has long been a family business. But Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters low on cash have started offering alternative payment for the guns they crave — stolen Syrian antiquities.

Cuneiform tablets, Roman friezes and statues, and Byzantine coins are particularly popular. “They give me antiquities, and I give them guns,” Abu Khader puts it simply.

An AK-47 can set you back $1,200 on the black market today, and the more desirable M4 carbine can cost around $4,500. Selling antiquities can help finance these purchases. “I have moved at least 100 objects,” Abu Khader says.

In addition to the Syrian civil war’s horrible human and economic costs, the conflict has also devastated Syria’s cultural heritage. At a February UNESCO conference, the Syrian Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) called the looting more damaging than the fighting that is ravaging mosques, old houses, and Crusader castles.

Only 3 percent of Syria’s heritage sites remain outside areas of conflict, according to a map released by the U.S. State Department’s Humanitarian Information Unit. A 2012 Global Heritage Fund report also makes for grim reading: All UNESCO World Heritage sites in Syria have been affected by the war, from the old cities of Aleppo and Damascus to the Crusader castle Crac des Chevaliers to the Roman city of Bosra.

Syria is an archaeological treasure trove, featuring antiquities from the Roman, Byzantine, Umayyad, and Ottoman periods. The country hosted up to 100 foreign archeological expeditions annually before the war started. The destruction of the millennia-old minaret of the Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo on April 24 is just the latest casualty of the violence.

Looting has become more commonplace as the conflict has dragged on. “There wasn’t that much evidence of looting this time last year. Now there is,” says Durham University doctoral student Emma Cunliffe, author of the Global Heritage report.

Similar pillaging followed the invasion of Iraq, the war in Libya, and even the uprising in Egypt. According to Maamoun Abdel-Karim, director of the DGAM, the antiquities directorate received at least 4,000 confiscated objects over the course of 2012, most of which were recovered on their way out of the country.

Read the full article here: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/05/08/syrian_rebels_stolen_treasures_art_theft_guns

Lebanese Abstract Artist Opens At Tate Modern

This article was published by Al-Monitor on 17 April, 2013

The apartment in which Raouda Choucair lives is a testament to her life. Her abstract paintings line the walls, and the cabinets are filled with maquettes for abstract public works she intended to have built. The drawers are crammed with notes, drawings and ideas documenting a career that now, with Choucair aged 97, seems to be finally taking off.

Until today, these objects seemed destined to be the preserve of a few people in the know. Often misunderstood by her Lebanese contemporaries, Choucair lived a solitary life, rueing the lack of recognition that her attempt to rhyme modernism with Arab art garnered. But now, over 120 pieces, many of them never seen outside her studio, have been shipped off to the Tate Modern in London, for the first major museum show of Lebanon’s first abstract artist. The show opens on April 17 and will run for six months [until Oct. 20].


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And still they come

This article was published by the Economist Pomegranate blog on 27th March 2012

WHEN Zaharith left the fighting of Damascus for the safety of Lebanon, she did not expect to find herself in jail. But the young Syrian is living in an abandoned prison in Souawiri, a town in the Bekaa valley.  Damp walls stretch up to a tiny barred window and heavy locks dangle from the iron door which seals the cell she shares with five other families.

Zaharith is one of over 1m refugees who have fled Syria. With fighting intensifying the flow shows no sign of abating. Lebanon has accepted the largest number. The Lebanese government now estimates that there are 1m Syrians in the country, which has a population of 4m, including workers and refugees who have not registered.

Read the full article here http://www.economist.com/blogs/pomegranate/2013/03/syrian-refugees-lebanon