Lebanese Canadian Coordinating Council (LCCC)
LCCC Web site http://www.10452lccc.com
October 03/08

11 Free Opinions & political commentaries compiled by Elias Bejjani all related to Lebanon and Terrorism
1-Let the dissidents chalenge the jihadists.Dr. Walid Phares
2-Stability in Lebanon Threatened, Again.By David Schenker
3-Iran’s Other Weapon. Trumpet Print Edition
4-LEBANON: Will Syria invade or stay put?By:Borzou Daragahi . Los Angeles Times
5-To Michel Aoun-By: Hassan Haidar Dar Al-Hayat
6-Is rapprochement breaking out between America and Syria? By Inter Press Service
7-Senior Salafi cleric issues stark warning to Damascus
8-The Saudi-Syrian Cold War Unfolds in Tripoli-By JOE MACARO
9-Syria can be Lebanon's friend, but only when it starts acting like one-The Daily Star

10-Beirut After More Than One Month of War.By JUSTIN VEL
11-Syria: The Player or the Game.By Mshari Al-Zaydi/Asharq Al-Awsat


Let the dissidents chalenge the jihadists
Dr. Walid Phares

01 Oct 2008
Prague, September 16, 2008
At the invitation of the Prague Security Studies Institute (PSSI), a think tank for international relations in the Czech Republic, Professor Walid Phares delivered a lecture, “Jihadist Strategies against Europe: Background, Projections and Options.” The event was co-sponsored by the Brussels-based European Foundation for Democracy, and the forum was attended by PSSI officers, diplomats and NGO members. Noting that under the forthcoming Czech Presidency, “the European Union can take perhaps more daring steps in recognizing the importance of the dissident segments of the Greater Middle East in the process of opposing totalitarian ideologies”, Phares underscored that terrorism combines security, political and economic consequences as it strikes against the international community. “The terror forces do not limit their actions to direct violence against hard targets, but they also incorporate political dividends and economic pressures to their strategies.” From his remarks we excerpt the following:
Central threat to democracies
“The main finding of the last 19 years since the Soviet collapse is that Jihadi-led terrorism has become a central threat to democracies worldwide. The debate among Jihadi Salafists since the Khartoum conferences in the early 1990s wasn’t between those who advocated violent Jihad as a concept and those who rejected it, as many experts in the West continue erroneously to affirm. The gist of that Jihadi debate was between two schools, as to which enemy to target and how.
Combat-Jihad (al Jihad al Qitali) is a tool, a weapon, not a sui generis doctrine by itself. As I advanced in my first post-9/11 book, Future Jihad, the realist school - the classical Wahhabis and the Muslim Brotherhood - advocated a reserved attitude towards engaging the West militarily before being able to achieve strategic parity with the West. Unfortunately, a number of analyses in the West confused this strategic approach with an alleged commitment to non-violent means. Hence, we’ve had a very poor understanding of Jihadi penetration for more than one decade. Today we see the emergence of a similar understanding within the Western counterterrorism community, which argues that the classical Jihadists are philosophically non-violent, thus they can be partnered with liberal democracies against the philosophically violent Jihadis such as al Qaeda.
Such a fundamental mistake in analysis and understanding can affect national security doctrines in the West and lead them into more serious and erroneous assessments in the future: for the debate among Jihadis is not about the use of violence or not. It is about when to use it, against whom and under which conditions. If that level of analysis is missing in the West, then another decade may well be lost in unsuccessful and futile attempts to find the “good Jihadists” and enlist them against the “bad Jihadists.”
Jihadis split over strategies, not violence
The split within the Jihadist community is not about the philosophy of violence because Jihad is not only and always sheer military action. There are Jihadi goals to attain, and Jihadi “qital” (combat) is only one means to achieve these goals. The Salafists (Wahhabis or Muslim Brotherhood) can decide not to resort to Qital as long as they are making progress in changing the balance of power to their advantage. But as the balance is changing, they will move to the next stage and use all means at their disposal, including Jihadi Qital.
The analytical mistake committed by some in the CT community is to single out a “moment” in Jihadi strategy and think it is “the” Jihadi strategy. Hence we are witnessing the proliferation of academics’ and experts’ calls to “engage” with the non-violent Jihadis as if the latter were a category in itself. In fact, this is a truncated reading of the whole process of Jihadism. Worse, it is also a maneuver by the Jihadists in their war of ideas to ignite trends within the realm of their enemies (liberal democracies) which would actually slow down the process of containment. In short, what some call “engagement” is in fact a successful move on behalf of the long term Jihadist to obstruct the West and other democracies from moving forward in their own campaign.
Penetration of Europe
From that perspective and, in view of the comprehensive monitoring of the Jihadi movement as a whole (both realists and combat Salafists), Jihadi terrorism has become a central threat to democracies at large. But that threat is even more evident and menacing with regard to Europe, i.e., the countries who are members of the European Union. The networks, both ideological and militant, have had several decades of penetration on the continent. The most affected areas are naturally the former colonial countries such as France and Great Britain, but also Spain, Holland and Italy. Germany, Scandinavia and the Benelux also absorbed a Salafi presence towards the end of the Cold War. In the big picture, Western Europe has been the recipient of significant influence and networks of Islamists from several regions of the world, particularly from the Maghreb, sub-Indian continent, and the Levant.
Central Europe and now Eastern Europe are witnessing a progression in the penetration process. But in view of the nature of Communist control for decades, the Jihadists do not yet have strongholds in cities such as Prague, Warsaw, Bratislava, Budapest and beyond. From scanning the internet, however, one can see the steady expansion of Salafism, and to some extent Khomeinist influence, but mostly migrating from Western Europe. Eventually the networks will be extended from West to East, following the expansion of the European Union itself. But let’s note that an East-West Jihadi migration is also emanating from the Balkans and Eastern Europe. Wahhabi-funded groups from Bosnia, Kosovo, Albania, Chechnya and other spots are now landing in central Europe.
Another aspect of Jihadi penetration in Europe is the financial network expanding across the continent in terms of the “high finances” of Wahhabi-supported interests as well as the “low finances” of al Qaeda-type factions, both using European banking systems. The Iranian-Hezbollah financial web is also present and is detectable in Germany and Scandinavia.
Expertise’s failures
Current European expertise in counterterrorism is spending serious time and heavy funding on an attempt to understand the rise of this web of Jihadism, which is coined as the “radicalization factor.” Since the Madrid attacks in 2004, the European expert investigations have centered on the socio-economic and “root causes” of terrorism. But alternative findings, also emerging from European research, are increasingly demonstrating that the “non-Jihadi” root causes aren’t providing strategic answers. Rather, the expert advice provided to national governments and Europeans since 9/11 has failed to predict the rapid rise of the networks. Even more perturbing is that the advising process continues to push towards the “non-Jihadi” theories, even as they have collapsed critically.
Fr example, the classical school in counterterrorism alleges that the Jihadists do not have one overarching ideology across the continent, but separate and distinct doctrines related to local claims and demands. This claim has been shattered by the mountain of evidence that the grand doctrine –al Aqida al Jihadiya- is omnipresent from London’s enclaves to Marseilles’ suburbs and, more importantly, goes unchallenged on the internet.
Another example is the failure to understand the central core of the ideology, whose long range goals are not satisfied by political or socio-economic negotiations. The so-called disenfranchisement argument has also been shattered by the Jihadists themselves. One, their agenda rejects it; two, their social strata disprove it; and three, the direct causality between disenfranchisement and terrorism is simply not valid. Nevertheless, many advisors on Islamism continue to push a legless body of arguments, depriving decision-makers and the public from real solutions.
Ignoring who best to engage
On the other hand, the much-needed tactic of engaging counter-Jihadi Muslims and civil society groups in the Greater Middle East has been almost ignored by chanceries and their counterterrorism experts. Ironically, instead of focusing on engaging the dissidents, pro-democracy human rights NGOs and activists, the “advice” extended to European Governments and now to the United States as well, is to engage the Islamists, and even the Jihadists.
This tactic is the result of a systemic failure of understanding not only the Jihadist strategies and realities, but also the political sociology inside the Arab and Muslim world and the immigrant communities in the West and in Europe. Government policy makers were almost convinced by their senior advisers, themselves relying on academic and professional expertise that the road to de-radicalization goes through an engagement with the radicals, or those who are a little bit less radical. Hence the move – and the spending - to integrate the Muslim Brotherhood, Wahhabis and Khomeinists in a bilateral dialogue with law enforcement and higher political levels for a few years now.
Obviously, the issue is not about having or not having a dialogue with these Islamist factions. It is not about “talking.” It is really about hoping that these bilateral discussions will effectively lead to de-radicalization. Undoubtedly, these engagements aren’t leading to reversing the radicalization processes, and they never will. Law enforcement and intelligence reports are clear in proving that none of this thinking has led to a reverse of Jihadization, either in Europe or in the United States.
Counter Jihadists win
In contrast, findings show that the activities by counter-Jihadist Muslim groups and similar cadres are the leading factors to help resist the advance of radical mobilization. The equations I have tested for over twenty years are verifiable: every time Jihadists and counter-Jihadists engage in a battle of ideas, counter-Jihadists win. Every time Jihadists are alone on the scene, obviously, they win.
It is now imperative that a renewed debate about radicalization in Europe, particularly in light of an EU Czech Presidency for half a year, restructures the engagement process to include the democracy segments within Middle Eastern and Muslim communities on the continent. Czech and central European experience in dissidence-dynamics and counter totalitarian processes is a needed component in the wider European effort to contain the Salafist and Khomeinist ideological expansion.
I have suggested to the forthcoming Czech Presidency of the European Union to initiate a strategy on democracy support as one of the new policies needed to win the battle of de-radicalization. Engagement must remain a solid principle, but with whom to engage strategically is the real question. My thesis is that those who deserve systematic and relentless backing are those who in their communities are willing to fight for the shared values of democracy and humanism. All attempts to ignore them have led to strengthening the very forces which are spreading Jihadism. Europeans and Americans have a real choice ahead of them, they must not fail again.
**Dr Walid Phares is the Director of the Future Terrorism Project at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a visiting scholar at the European Foundation for Democracy. He is the author of The war of Ideas: Jihadism against Democracy.

Stability in Lebanon Threatened, Again
By David Schenker
PolicyWatch #1406
October 2, 2008
This past Monday, a Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) transport was targeted by a car bomb that killed five soldiers and wounded twenty-five others. The strike was the third on the LAF since June and occurred in the increasingly violent northern Lebanon. In fact, violence in and around Tripoli, the largest city in the north, is now becoming routine. This explosive situation threatens the country's already fragile stability, while providing Syria an opportunity to loosen the pro-Western ruling coalition's tenuous hold on power.
Recent Violence
In May, the Lebanese government made the unprecedented decision to curtail Hizballah's control over Beirut airport and to dismantle the Shiite militia's telecommunications network. Hizballah, a Syrian- and Iranian-backed militia, demanded the government reverse the decision. When it refused, the organization mobilized its forces to take control of Beirut.
Sunni-Alawite fighting. Images of Hizballah manhandling March 14–aligned Sunni Muslims in the capital enraged Lebanon's Sunnis, sparking reprisal attacks against the Shiite organization's Syrian-backed allies in the Alawite community in the north. The Syrian government is dominated by that country's Alawite minority and has close ties with the community in Lebanon. Sunni Muslims, some of whom are religiously conservative Salafists -- reportedly backed by Saudi Arabia, where Salafism is the government-sanctioned school of Islam -- attacked the headquarters of the Syrian Socialist Party and other opposition strongholds in and around Tripoli. (In this complicated situation, still other Sunni militants are supported by Syria.) After nine people were killed on June 23, the LAF was deployed to quell the hostilities. Fighting was temporarily halted, but the LAF had to be redeployed in July when violence resumed.
On August 13, a bus bomb in Tripoli killed fifteen people, including ten LAF soldiers. On September 8, political leaders from northern Lebanon signed an agreement -- brokered by March 14 leader Saad Hariri -- which brought a respite from the violence until this week's attack.
Lebanese Forces-Marada killings. A few weeks after the August 13 attack, members of the March 14-allied Christian Lebanese Forces (LF) clashed with pro-Syrian Christian Marada party members near Tripoli. Skirmishes centered on an LF rally slated to be held adjacent to Marada party headquarters; in the resulting violence, Yousef Franjiyeh, head of the party's office in Bsarma, was killed. At a press conference on September 17, Marada party head Suleiman Franjiyeh accused LF leader Samir Geagea and LF parliament member Farid Habib of complicity in the killing and demanded to hear results of the investigation "within fifteen days."
Heightened Concerns about Syria
The fighting in northern Lebanon raises concerns that the conflict may escalate and broaden, bringing Lebanon once again to the brink of civil war. For March 14, reports that the Alawite Syrian regime was arming its Lebanese co-religionists resembled what happened in May 2007 when the Syrian-backed al-Qaeda affiliate, Fatah Islam, beheaded twenty-five LAF officers, touching off a four-month battle in the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp near Tripoli. More troubling, however, were statements from Damascus that continued fighting in north Lebanon threatened Syrian interests. Lebanese government officials were particularly incensed by Syrian president Bashar al-Asad's comments on September 4 about the "fragile" security situation in the north, which he attributed to "foreign-backed [Saudi] extremism." As March 14 leader Walid Jumblatt described, "al-Asad is linking Syrian security and the situation in north Lebanon. He has used it as a new pretext to interfere in Lebanese affairs."
On September 22, the eve of Lebanese president Michel Suleiman's visit to Washington, several Lebanese networks reported Syrian troops massing on the border, a move portrayed as a measure to defend Syria against Lebanese Salafists. Less than a week later, on September 27, in the most brazen terrorist attack on Syrian soil since the 1980s, a massive car bomb exploded in Damascus.
Predictably, the Syrian government has attributed the Damascus attack to "Sunni fundamentalists" -- i.e., al-Qaeda. Given the opaque nature of Syria, the Asad regime's longstanding support for terrorists, and the government's propensity for killing its own citizens, this attribution is far from certain. For instance, the Syrians are suspected in several local political murders, including former Syrian viceroy of Lebanon Ghazi Kenaan. He is believed to have been killed because he knew too much about the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri -- a crime for which Syria is the leading suspect -- and, more recently, the killing of Muhammad Suleiman, who was in charge of Syria's nuclear program.
At the same time, it would not be surprising if Sunni fundamentalists were able to carry out operations in Syria. Since 2003, the Asad regime has assisted al-Qaeda members by facilitating their travel across Syrian territory into Iraq and, according to U.S. Central Command, has allowed the organization to train on its territory. It has also facilitated the movement of Sunni militants into Lebanon and reportedly Jordan. Through these actions, Damascus allowed Salafist presence on its territory, leaving itself vulnerable to attacks.
Little Prospect for Progress in the National Dialogue
On September 16, Lebanese leaders convened for a national dialogue session at Baabda presidential palace, under the auspices of President Suleiman. The top item on the agenda was the national defense strategy, i.e., what role Hizballah's military force should play in Lebanon. The issue has been at the top of a long list of controversial topics since Hizballah unilaterally launched a cross-border raid in July 2006, bringing Lebanon into war with Israel.
More recently, the issue of a national defense regained prominence due to what appeared to be a case of mistaken identity. On August 28, a Hizballah fighter in south Lebanon opened fire on a LAF helicopter, killing the pilot. The killer, who said he believed the helicopter was Israeli, was turned over by Hizballah to Lebanese authorities. During an early-September television appearance, Hizballah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah called the incident "regrettable" -- though noting that the shooter was behaving "naturally or instinctively" -- and issued condolences to the family of the LAF "martyr."
The helicopter incident and Hizballah's 2006 raid into Israel highlight the necessity for a national defense strategy. Beirut does not exert sovereignty over Lebanon, nor will it until Hizballah's weapons are under the authority of the state. During his inaugural speech on May 26, Suleiman laid out a formula making the LAF the primary defender of Lebanon, but also noting that the Army would "benefit from the capabilities of the resistance in the service of the national defense strategy." It is unclear, however, how the president intends to make this contorted plan a reality. Regardless, given Hizballah's longstanding aversion to relinquishing any operational freedom to the state, there is little indication that the dialogue on national defense will produce a solution under which the Lebanese government controls the country -- in fact as well as in name.
For the immediate future, violence in the north and against the LAF will remain a challenge to the country's stability. The national dialogue may serve to calm some prevailing local tensions, but it is unlikely to resolve key points of contention between the March 14 coalition and the Hizballah-led opposition. Meanwhile, if the Asad regime remains true to form, Damascus will leverage the situation to weaken its pro-West enemies in Beirut. The Sunni problem in north Lebanon, which has been fueled at least in part by Syria, undermines the central Sunni component of the March 14 coalition to the benefit of Hizballah. As the spring 2009 Lebanese elections approach, it is a trend that does not bode well for Washington and its allies in Beirut.
**David Schenker is director of the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute.

Iran’s Other Weapon
From the Nov/Dec 2008
Trumpet Print Edition »
Its nuclear project makes headlines, but Iran has another deadly weapon ready to go right now.
By Richard Palmer
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei openly says his nation wants a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. In fact, one of Iran’s long-held goals is to capture that capital city—considered one of the holiest among Muslims.
Intelligence analyst Joseph de Courcy wrote in the Islamic Affairs Analyst several years ago, “Subscribers should be in absolutely no doubt about this. From Iran’s support for subversion in Bahrain, through its improving ties with Egypt, its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Islamist revolutionaries in Khartoum, to its close strategic alliance with Moscow, everything has the same ultimate purpose: the liberation of Jerusalem from under the Zionist yoke.”
Jerusalem is Iran’s ultimate goal. Hezbollah’s purpose is to help Iran reach it.
Founded in 1982 by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, Hezbollah has a long history of attacks against Western targets, including the two bombings of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in 1983 and 1984, and the October 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks. Today, Hezbollah is more powerful than ever, according to Fred Burton, the former deputy chief of the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service counterterrorism division. In fact, he says this terrorist group’s international capabilities are greater than al Qaeda’s ever were. “[T]hanks to Iran, Hezbollah has far more—and better-trained—operational cadre than al Qaeda ever had. … Iranian state sponsorship provides Hezbollah with a support network that al Qaeda can only dream of,” he wrote (Stratfor, Oct. 31, 2007).
Many now admit that much of al Qaeda’s success lay in its broad connections with sundry state governments. But where al Qaeda is—or was—tied to these nations, Hezbollah is welded to its state backer: Iran, one of the West’s worst enemies.
“Iran is Hezbollah’s real strategic partner,” Dr. Jonathan Spyer, senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center, told the Trumpet recently. Many of the men in charge of Hezbollah have been trained in Iran. They share the Iranians’ radical ideology. Iran funds them. It gives them their weapons. Nothing big happens in Hezbollah’s world without the group first running the plan past Iran’s grand ayatollah, Spyer said. “[U]ltimately Hezbollah is only possible because of Iranian support; Iranian support is key.”
If Iran is attacked, it can use Hezbollah in retaliation. “If there is going to be an attack against Iran, even if the United States isn’t involved, if it’s just done by Israel, I think Iran will try to attack U.S. interests in the region, if not directly, then through their proxies,” Meir Javedanfar, author of The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran, said. “They will want to make Israel a very, very expensive liability for the U.S.”
According to Spyer, Hezbollah used help from the Iranian Embassy for its attack on the Jewish Community Center in Argentina. The Hezbollah-Iran relationship works both ways: Iran can use Hezbollah against the West, and Hezbollah can use state-level assets, including Iranian intelligence and embassies, to increase its power and terror.
Hezbollah’s international abilities are a formidable terrorist weapon Iran can use in its foreign-policy objectives. And its home base and stronghold in Lebanon, just across Israel’s northern border, provides an ideal launching pad for the chief among these objectives: sacking Jerusalem.
Khamenei has made it clear that Hezbollah has an important role in the capture of the capital city. Kayhan, a newspaper with close ties to Khamenei, gloated over Hezbollah’s success in the Second Lebanon War. In its 2006 Quds (Jerusalem) Day edition, it wrote, “In the 33-day war, the Lebanese Hezbollah destroyed at least 50 percent of Israel [and therefore] half the path to the liberation of Jerusalem.” Iran sees Hezbollah’s position in Lebanon as clearing the road to Jerusalem. Hezbollah shares these views; it too wants to “liberate” Jerusalem.
Since the Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah has been rebuilding and rearming. After the war, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon was notionally there to prevent that from happening—but unfortunately for Israel, it hasn’t done its job. As a result, right under the UN’s nose, Hezbollah has more than recovered its prewar strength.
Radical Islam lusts after Jerusalem, and it will soon make a grab for it, Bible prophecy indicates. The Bible says that radical Islam will in fact violently conquer half of the city. Jerusalem will be the trigger for the worst war in history.
Yet Jerusalem has a future unlike anywhere else. Though it will soon be the flashpoint for the world’s greatest suffering, soon after it will become the seed of the world’s greatest hope. It will be the location from which Christ will rule the Earth, and eventually, from which God Himself will rule the universe! There is no city on Earth like it.
For a dire warning—and for unparalleled hope in the ultimate future—watch Jerusalem.
For more information, request a free copy of Jerusalem in Prophecy. •

LEBANON: Will Syria invade or stay put?
Leaders of Lebanon's American-backed March 14 coalition have publicly voiced fears that Syria is planning to launch an invasion of their country on the pretext of clamping down on Islamic extremists based in the northern seaside city of Tripoli.
Security officials in Lebanon and Syria have accused such militant groups of responsibility for a pair of attacks in Tripoli and Damascus that have killed at least 24 people over the last week. Syrian President Bashar Assad has complained that northern Lebanon has become a hotbed for extreme Islamic groups.
The attacks followed Syria's decision to amass what some describe as thousands of troops along the Lebanese frontier. Damascus says it was to interdict smuggling. But former President Amin Gemayel, leader of the Christian Ketayeb movement said the troop deployment was not “not innocent."
Meanwhile, Saad Hariri, leader of the Sunni Future movement, accused Damascus of being responsible for the violence. He accused Syria of “infiltrating extremists to north Lebanon to carry out terrorist attacks targeting the Lebanese army and civilians."
Samir Geagea, leader of the Christian Lebanese Forces movement, went even further, saying that Assad was laying the groundwork for a return to Lebanon, which his military was forced to leave after a prolonged occupation ended in 2005.
In a television interview, he said Assad's charge that north Lebanon poses a threat to Syria's security is aimed at "setting the atmosphere for Syrian intervention in Lebanon."
As proof of Syria's intentions, March 14 leaders allege that Assad compared Moscow's troubles in Georgia to Damascus' in Lebanon in an interview with the Russian business daily Kommersant. It's an ominous statement that could indicate Syria was looking for an excuse to invade its smaller neighbor.
But did Assad really say that? So far, no credible news sources have unearthed the actual remark, and an English-language version of the Kommersant article makes no such reference.
Most likely, March 14 leaders are upping the ante for fear of an imminent rapprochement between Washington and Damascus. Over the last week, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other senior American diplomats met with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem in Washington.
Lebanese fear Americans will sell them out just as they suspect the George H.W. Bush administration likely gave the late Syrian President Hafez Assad the OK to invade Lebanon in 1990 in exchange for his support of the U.S. war to remove Iraqi troops from Kuwait.
In any case, most Middle East experts doubt Syria would do something so brash as to re-invade Lebanon without an explicit OK from the West, especially because Damascus has gotten peace talks with Israel, and sit-downs with high-ranking officials in Washington and Paris as well as all sorts of cash and prizes in exchange for... well, for staying put and not doing a darn thing.
Syria so far has had to take no steps in order to shake off its pariah status. It has not downgraded its ties with ally Iran or reined in its alleged support for Hezbollah in Lebanon or Hamas in the Palestinian territories.
Would Syria mess with a good thing by invading Lebanon and angering the West?
— Borzou Daragahi in Beirut

To Michel Aoun
Hassan Haidar

Al-Hayat - 02/10/08//
After the "revolt" of the 6th of February, 1984, against the rule of President Amine Gemayel, and up until February 1987, when the Syrian Army returned to Beirut, the Western part of Lebanon's capital, which was still forcibly separated from its Eastern part, and vice versa, witnessed a series of skirmishes and battles between militias of various inclinations and sectarian affiliations. The overwhelming majority of the victims of these events were innocent civilians, who fell, either in the streets, or while trying to reach their homes though checkpoints, demarcation lines and military bases. Sometimes, they were people who were kidnapped based "on ID" and killed, or detained until they could be exchanged for others held by the opposing faction.
It appeared later that these little wars were being ignited intentionally, and that their purpose was to spread chaos and desperation among the city's inhabitants, and to convince the Lebanese that they do not enjoy living together and that their desire to kill each other by far surpasses their drive to enjoy a safe life. They were also intended to prepare the Lebanese and the world to accept the idea of the return of Syrian forces, "the only ones capable of ensuring security".
At the time, I was employed at a local institution in Beirut, whose offices were located in the center of the Hamra area. Different militias regarded this vicinity as "strategic" due to its many "resources" and the ease, with which "donations" could be gathered from its businesses. One night, a high-ranking banking official, who held an important position at the Central Bank, with a long history with Politics, came to see us. About half an hour later, we started receiving information about tensions between two militias, and began hearing distant gunfire. Our guest decided to return home before the fighting became more intense, as his house was only about one kilometer away, and said that he would be taking a street that does not usually witness any fighting and where there are no militiamen. However, a mere fifty meters away, he was surprised with a checkpoint by one of the two warring factions. The militiamen asked for his ID and he identified himself, but they also wanted his driver's ID. Once they had identified the driver as an "enemy", they brought him out of the car, blindfolded him and tied him up, despite the banker's intervention and his pleading with them to take him instead.
The man's insistence and stubbornness in holding on to his driver led one of the militiamen to fire a gunshot near him. He hurried back to our institution's building and pleaded with some of the guards at the entrance to help him. They tried to convince him that it was impossible to negotiate with the militiamen. Once he had calmed down, he began a series of long and grueling phone calls involving the managers of our institution and the leaders of the militia that had kidnapped the driver. The banker repeatedly stated that he would not go home until he would have gotten his driver back, and that he would not be able to look into the eyes of the man's wife and children after having "caused" him to be kidnapped when he took him away from amongst them to accompany him on his visit.
Five stressful hours passed until the place, where the driver was detained, could be "found". According to the militia commanders, it had been shortly before the decision to "liquidate" him was going to be carried out. When the driver arrived at the building accompanied by militiamen, the man ran to meet him, crying and embracing him, and said: "now we can go home".
That banker with a conscience was Fouad Siniora. Therefore, can we worry about the treasury with a man like him?
Even the Syrians, your new-found allies, who cannot bear to even hear Siniora's name, have never reached the extent of accusing him of theft. So please, General, have a little bit of common sense

Is rapprochement breaking out between America and Syria?
By Inter Press Service
Friday, October 03, 2008
Analysis-Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON: A series of meetings between US and Syrian diplomats, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, at the United Nations in late September is stirring speculation that Washington may at last be moving toward engaging Damascus.
Instead of focusing on specific issues of special interest to the United States - mainly Washington's demands that Syria crack down hard against the infiltration of Sunni extremists into Iraq and stop backing Hizbullah in Lebanon - the discussions also reportedly covered other topics as well, notably Damascus' appeals for Washington to involve directly itself in a burgeoning peace process between Syria and Israel.
Both Syria and Israel have called for US engagement as a way of furthering year-old indirect talks that have been mediated by the Turkish government. While Rice has publicly blessed the process, hawks within the administration of US President George W. Bush, particularly Vice President Dick Cheney's office and a notoriously pro-Israeli deputy national security adviser in charge of the Middle East, Elliott Abrams, have opposed any additional involvement.
"Nothing is a breakthrough, and I'm not sure that there will be," Rice, who met with Moallem on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York last Friday, told Bloomberg TV on Monday. "But it's time to talk about some of the changes that are taking place in the Middle East."
While the Rice-Moallem contact reportedly lasted only 10 minutes, her chief regional deputy, Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch, met with the Syrian official in a longer meeting Monday, according to the Wall Street Journal, which suggested that the talks portended a "potential thaw" between Washington and Damascus.
"I consider this a good progress in the American position," Moallem told the Journal in a reference to his meeting with Rice. "The atmosphere was positive. We decided to continue this dialogue."
Still, some observers voiced skepticism that the meetings signaled a major shift in Washington's willingness to seriously engage Damascus in the nearly four months before Bush leaves office.
"It's clearly time for a re-think of policy [regarding Syria], and I think Rice and others in the administration are trying to shepherd it forward," said Joshua Landis, a Syria specialist at the University of Oklahoma who publishes the widely read www.syriacomment.com blog. "Rice is definitely open to it - and the whole Department of Defense has been kicking for this for a long time - but she can't get it past the White House."
He noted that Bush himself had referred to Syria as a "sponsor of terrorism" in his speech to the General Assembly.
As with Iran and North Korea, the split between Bush administration hawks and realists over Syria is a familiar one. While Rice's predecessor, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, argued for engaging with Damascus both before and after the March 2003 US invasion of Iraq, the hawks - led by Cheney and then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld - favored a policy of "regime change" against the government President Bashir Assad.
Amid charges that Syria was facilitating the smuggling of Sunni extremists into Iraq, Washington's hostility toward Damascus grew steadily after the invasion and climaxed after the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which the US blamed on Syria. The administration, which led the ensuing international pressure campaign that forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, withdrew its ambassador from Damascus as part of a much more comprehensive effort to weaken and isolate Assad.
During the month-long war between Israel and Lebanon the following year, Abrams, presumably with Cheney's backing, reportedly assured Israeli policymakers that Washington would have no objection to their expanding hostilities into Syrian territory.
Rumsfeld's resignation in November 2006 and his replacement by the more realist Robert Gates - not to mention the stunning deterioration in Washington's regional's position resulting from the war's outcome, the routing of Fatah by Syrian-backed Hamas in Gaza, and the growing sectarian violence in Iraq - tilted the balance of power within the administration.
Over the strenuous objections of neoconservatives and other hawks, Rice invited Syria to take part in last November's Annapolis summit that launched the formal resumption of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
It was shortly after the meeting that Turkey began mediating indirect peace talks between Damascus and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, reportedly centered around the return of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in exchange for Syria's agreement to normalize ties. Israel also wants Syria to cut its links to Hizbullah, Hamas, and Iran.
While, according to virtually all accounts, those talks made major progress, they have been suspended since early September pending the formation or election of a new Israeli government. Olmert, who last week resigned as head of the ruling Kadima Party due to a corruption scandal, is currently serving as a caretaker prime minister.
In addition, Damascus has long insisted that a final peace accord could be reached only if Washington strongly endorsed the deal and normalized ties, something that the White House, despite the urging from the State Department and several former senior US diplomats - including the ex-head of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee - has so far ruled out.
Meanwhile, however, Washington's efforts to isolate Syria have eroded significantly in recent months. Hizbullah's victory over Western-backed forces in Beirut street fighting last spring, followed by the Doha Accord that gave pro-Syrian forces there a virtual veto over major policy decisions, marked a major political defeat for Washington's Lebanon policy.
At the same time, the replacement of French President Jacques Chirac, Washington's closest ally in isolating Assad, by Nicolas Sarkozy dealt another major blow. In July, Sarkozy became the first West European leader to host Assad - at the annual Bastille Day celebration, no less - since Hariri's death. Sarkozy followed that up with a visit to Damascus in September where he offered to co-sponsor Israeli-Syrian peace talks when they resume. At the same time, Assad announced several moves seemingly designed to appease Washington - among them, sending an ambassador Iraq.
Whether the recent meetings suggest that the balance of power within the administration has shifted should become clearer in the coming weeks, particularly if Washington sends an ambassador or senior-ranking official to Damascus, as has long been urged by Syria.
According to Landis, the then-US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, pressed the White House last December to go there himself but was rebuffed. Now head of US Central Command and still a White House favorite, Petraeus could decide to renew his request, which, if granted, would likely be seen as evidence of serious shift.
Saturday's car-bombing that killed 17 people in Damascus itself could bolster the Pentagon's longstanding case that greater intelligence cooperation with Syria could serve the interests of both countries. Most analysts have pointed to Sunni extremists, possibly tied to Al-Qaeda, as the most likely perpetrators.
"With its Lebanon policy [in] shambles and its efforts to isolate Syria defied by France, Turkey, and Israel itself, it really doesn't make sense for the White House to continue stiffing the Syrians," said Landis. "It's really just pure stubbornness at this point."

Senior Salafi cleric issues stark warning to Damascus

By Nicholas Kimbrell -Daily Star staff
Friday, October 03, 2008
BEIRUT: Lebanon's leading Salafi cleric, Dai al-Islam al-Shahhal, has warned Syria to stay out of North Lebanon or risk opening "the gates of hell." In an interview to be published in the Kuwaiti daily Al-Anbaa, Shahhal made clear that Syrian intervention in Lebanon would be met with stiff opposition.
A military incursion would open "the gates of hell and lead to what is similar to Iraq and its misery," he said, according to excerpts received by the Lebanese news outlet Naharnet. "The Syrian command and its allies in Lebanon," Shahhal added, "are keen on driving a wedge between the Salafi movement and the Lebanese military establishment in order to drag the whole Sunni community into conflict."
Following the tenuous intra-Lebanese peace forged in Doha, Qatar, in May, residual tensions simmered between Salafist groups aligned with the Future Movement and opposition-aligned Alawites in Tripoli - where, last year, the militant Islamist group Fatah al-Islam and the Lebanese Armed Forces fought a brutal 15-week battle in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp. Relations between certain hard-line Sunni factions and the army have remained tense.
But Shahhal said that in the event of Syrian intervention, Salafi leaders would coordinate with the army. "The Salafi movement is not like other factions and would not take decisions to go to war or peace without coordinating its moves with all other factions because they have the right to set the national path," he said.
The recent violence in Tripoli, a large deployment of Syrian troops to the border and statements by Syrian President Bashar Assad have fueled concerns in Lebanon of a potential Syrian incursion into the North. On Monday, a car bomb killed four Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) soldiers and at least one civilian in Tripoli, echoing a similar attack in August which left 15 dead. Monday's blast came only two days after an explosion in Damascus killed 17 people. The official Syrian Arab News Agency blamed the blast on an Islamist suicide bomber from a neighboring Arab country.
Last week, the Lebanese Army reported that 10,000 Syrian special forces had deployed to the Lebanese-Syrian border in what was called an anti-smuggling campaign. And in early September, Assad told visiting heads of state from France, Turkey and Qatar that the growing threat of extremism in Tripoli must be addressed by the Lebanese Army, drawing sharp criticism from members of the March 14 alliance who labeled the remarks a "flagrant" violation of Lebanon's sovereignty. According to Shahhal, the recent events form "an integral part of the deal concluded by the Syrian-Israeli negotiations which calls for [a] Syrian incursion in Tripoli and the North to finish off the Salafi movement, as a first step, and other Lebanese factions allied with Syria, as a second step."
Although the Lebanese Army and a number of political analysts have rejected the idea of an imminent Syrian invasion, concern over the violence in the Tripoli is widespread. "Obviously, the North is becoming a proxy battleground for regional conflict ... a field to settle scores and [import] regional tension," Osama Safa, the head of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, told The Daily Star.
Safa said that Shahhal's comments might educe a rhetorical response from Syria but that action on the ground was unlikely.
Groups are "drawing lines in the sand and crystallizing coalitions," Safa said, adding that Shahhal's comments were designed not to alienate the Lebanese government or the army. Noting the historical enmity between Syria and the Salafis, Ahmad Mousalli, a professor at the American University of Beirut and an expert on Islamic fundamentalism, told The Daily Star that, "The scheme for war is being established." The mood in the North can only "weaken the moderates and strengthen the radicals," he said, adding that "Syria is dancing the tango."
He cited the short-lived detente between the Salafis and Hizbullah as an indicator of confessional and regional tensions, with one group traditionally backed by Saudi Arabia and the other by Syria. Although Mousalli seemed doubtful that Syria would launch a full-scale military invasion, he warned that hard-line Islamist groups in the North could follow the path of radicalization that took place in Afghanistan and Iraq. "I don't think Saad Hariri [son of the slain Premier Rafiq Hariri and head of the Future Movement] can control them any more," he said. Both Safa and Mousalli predicted that the unrest in the North would continue, albeit at varying levels.
"We can expect bombs here and there, possibly assassinations," Safa said. Mousalli's forecast was more dire. "This is just the tip of the iceberg," he said

The Saudi-Syrian Cold War Unfolds in Tripoli
By JOE MACARON (Special to the Middle East Times)
Published: October 03, 2008
The Cold War between Syria and Saudi Arabia playing itself out in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli is taking the Lebanese crisis into unchartered territories where all the microcosms of inter-Arab animosity are vying for power in Lebanon.
Saudi Arabia seems reluctant to accept the implications of the May 7 clashes which broke out on the streets of Beirut when the main Sunni force in Lebanon, the Future movement led by Saad Hariri, suffered a swift blow from Hezbollah, the Syrian and Iranian backed Shiite group.
The Doha Agreement, rushed under the barrel of a gun, did not bring any unexpected variable or structural amendment, but merely an addendum to the Taif Agreement of 1989, pushing through recognition of Syrian influence in Lebanon.
Yet, both Saudi and Syrian regimes have one thing in common: a vague structure of security power not conducive to analyze the rationale behind their policies. Riyadh's political options are predictable and built on the premise of a Sunni-Shiite divide, while the Syrian leadership, existing in a more complex environment, muddled along in somewhat of a state of disarray since 2001, where a the political line followed by Damascus remains blurred.
Two blasts shocked Tripoli and Damascus last week, underlining a Salafist thin line stretching from the capital of north Lebanon all the way to the capital of Syria. Sunni extremism in Tripoli is a byproduct of the Syrian regime in some ways, since Damascus perceived the medieval city to be an extension of the Syrian heartland, as the late journalist Samir Kassir once observed. But it is hard also not to detect Saudi Arabia's hand in Tripoli.
Syrian President Bashar Assad said that Lebanon is becoming a haven for radicals and a threat to the security of Syria. Saad Hariri instantly replied by questioning his intentions, accusing Assad of "infiltrating extremists into Lebanon," and even expressing Saudi frustration over France's overture toward Damascus.
Assad asked Lebanese President Michel Suleiman to deploy the Lebanese army to the north of Lebanon to quell the violence. Damascus has reportedly stationed thousands of heavily armed Syrian troops along the Lebanese border, before a blast in Damascus near the "Palestinian branch" of the Syrian Intelligence, which could be seen as retaliation to Syria's shoring up its control over the border with Iraq.
The Salafist anarchy in Tripoli has been a work in progress since the 1970s, with refugee camps during the insurrection of the Palestinian national movement, joined in the 1980s by Muslim Brotherhood members who fled the crackdown of the Syrian regime in Hama and by militants who came from Afghanistan in the 1990s after the war ended with the Soviets. The power game of this radical movement over Tripoli has continued since, first with secular forces and later within the many trends of the Sunni movement.
The Lebanese army has also clashed with these militants for a while and a massive offensive was launched at the end of 1999 against a group called al-Takfir wal Hijra in the mountains of Dinnieh, where a unit of the Lebanese army was ambushed one day after Syrian authorities cracked down on militants from Hizb al-Tahriri al-Islami (the Islamic Liberation Party). The same group had also ambushed and killed Syrian intelligence agents.
The same year the Syrian army clashed with the Muslim Brotherhood in the Hama massacre, Sunni radical factions in Tripoli coalesced under one umbrella and took over the city in 1982, before Syrian troops intervened in 1985 to end this adventure. Sunni forces had to accept the Syrian status quo, and Damascus sought in return to consolidate its grip by empowering another group, the Ahbash.
But with the rise of Wahabism in the 1990s, the Salafist movement gained momentum and challenged Syria. The leader of al-Ahbash, Nizar al-Halabi, was killed in August 1995 reportedly by a Wahabi group, Osbat al-Ansar. This incident forced al-Ahbash to take a back seat and left the Wahabi groups as the main players in the radical Sunni movement.
But Syria and Saudi Arabia kept on gambling with this card. Syria released a dangerous person named Shaker Abssi before the end of his sentence. In October 2006 he made his way to the refugee camps north of Lebanon to form Fatah al-Islam, a group that clashed with the Lebanese army in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr el-Bared last year. The fate of Abssi remains obscure as no one can confirm if he is dead or was able to sneak out of the camp alive.
Islamist Omar Bakri, who was able to escape British authorities, was released by Lebanese authorities and found a new home in Tripoli in August 2005. In July 2005, the political establishment released the Dinniyeh detainees as part of a deal to release the leader of the Lebanese Forces Samir Geagea from prison. The Lebanese government turned its back and allowed the growth of this Salafist movement in its own backyard while Saudi money kept pouring into the city for electoral reasons and motives related to balance Hezbollah.
During the confrontations in Nahr el-Bared in May 2007, no other radical Sunni forces, including groups inspired by al-Qaida, intervened to help.
The scary scenario now is if and when militants in other refugee camps jump in. Jind al-Sham, an offshoot of Osbat al-Ansar, killed four judges in Sidon, in south Lebanon, in 1999 before hiding in Ain al-Helweh refugee camp.
To further complicate matters Saudi Arabia and Syria are not the only game players in town. In one of his audiotapes released in February 2007, al-Qaida's number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, made reference to Lebanon only in so far as the U.N. peacekeepers in the south were concerned. Yet in another tape last April, Zawahiri said that Lebanon will have "a pivotal role in the battle against Crusaders and Jews," described the embattled country as "a gap" and argued that "the mujahedin in Lebanon are caught up between the fire of U.S. agents and allies, and the fire of those linked to regional powers."
The abatement of violence in Iraq has attracted many fighters to Lebanon. The decision to start negotiations with Israel while cooperating with the United States on Iraq made Syria vulnerable to retaliation by radical forces, which now turned their anger against Damascus.
Saudi Arabia seems now unable to manage these forces in Tripoli after embracing them, and Riyadh dispatched Hariri to shape a political reconciliation when clashes between Sunni and Alawis reached its peak and started to affect Saudi's image in Lebanon.
Recent violence - assassinations and explosions - not necessarily interrelated, reflect a battle between competing intelligence agencies and radical movements, all serving different masters and different motives from all friends and foes of Lebanon.
The lack of political will and a national security vision in Beirut opens the door for this anarchy, a state that no Lebanese faction values its sovereignty and a central government that continues a tradition of disregarding the north and south of the country.
What emerges from all this is a lethal chess game being played out on Lebanese soil.

Syria can be Lebanon's friend, but only when it starts acting like one
By The Daily Star

Friday, October 03, 2008
Relations between Lebanon and Syria have taken a marked turn for the worse in recent days, and the latter's pronouncement that it faces a dire threat emanating from inside the former's borders has poked the proverbial hornets' nest. Nascent crises of this sort have a way of quickly moving beyond the ability of any party to control, making it incumbent on both Beirut and Damascus to reduce tensions that imperil their separate and shared interests - and to do so quickly. Much of the foreboding stems from the purported parallels between today's situation in North Lebanon and that in South Ossetia during the runup to Russia's August humiliation of the Georgian Army over the breakaway region. The rumblings from Damascus are widely viewed as particularly ominous in light of the fact that Syrian President Bashar Assad made a point of visiting Russia in the immediate aftermath of the conflict - and of endorsing Moscow's right to have intervened. But Lebanon is not Georgia, and Syria is emphatically not Russia, two conditions that need to be acknowledged all around if additional and unnecessary deterioration is to be avoided.
Whatever its current intentions, the Syrian leadership includes plenty of people who understand that instability in Lebanon does not serve their country's interests, especially when they can plausibly be blamed for it. Despite this fact, Damascus has repeatedly contributed to the breakdown of the Lebanese political process in the past few years - meaning that even if its portrayals of a gathering danger in North Lebanon are accurate, it bears considerable responsibility because its actions have helped open up the space for sectarian conflict and resultant radicalization.
Luckily, it will never be too late for Lebanon and Syria to be allies: Virtually everything about the two countries' individual and shared circumstances demands that they identify and pursue common causes, so it is just a matter of time before they do. But opportunities for partnership have a tendency to advance and recede according to a variety of factors. Given the challenges facing the Arab state in general and Lebanon's and Syria's in particular, now is no time to let that tide roll out. The concept of Lebanon can work, and so can Lebanese-Syrian relations - but only if and when both parties accept one another as equals

Beirut After More Than One Month of War
Middle East Times
October 02, 2008
The repetitive and consistently sad nature of the Middle East conflict needs to be entered on the correct note. So, largely to amuse myself, I flew from Belgrade to Beirut one Friday the 13th and on the plane chanced to meet Sarah who was from the northern city of Tripoli who was returning to Lebanon for summer vacation from France, where she studied computer engineering.
"Lebanon is all safe," she said. "You don't have to worry. We occasionally have some shootings and explosions, but I don't think you'll have any of that now. Nobody will rob you. They are too concentrated on the shootings and explosions to do that. We do shootings and explosions in Lebanon. We have not started robbing people."
It was a recommendation only heard from a person used to living in a war zone. The post-traumatic stress that the Lebanese suffer was so intense that Sarah was actually applauding the fact that solo travelers carrying expensive cameras were not likely to be robbed because of how caught up potential thieves were with the shootings and explosions that frequently rocked their country.
Beirut deserved the good word however. The city, built along the Mediterranean, was modern and beautiful except for the southern suburbs which were the ramshackle cinderblock mess that compose slums in many developing nations, though in Lebanon they had the added repute of having been bombed by Israel during the July 2006 war.
The city was also empty. Beirut supposedly had a population of over 2 million, but the statistic did not match the number of people walking around or the number of cars on the streets. Many restaurants and shops were closed, the doors were locked and chairs and merchandise were stacked inside.
When asking about the lack of people, I was told Beirut was actually filling back up. Hezbollah had just ended its yearlong takeover of Downtown and Michel Suleiman, the head of the army and therefore a neutral figure, had been appointed president after an 18-month deadlock between the pro-West government and the pro-Syrian opposition that Hezbollah was a part of.
Hezbollah, the Shiite militia was suddenly becoming one of the most self-confident forces in the Middle East. They could claim to have defeated Israel's July 2006 attempt to wipe them out and last May easily took over West Beirut, cementing their position as Lebanon's most powerful armed force. The army, fearing being split along ethnic lines, had refused to act.
Clearly, it was Hezbollah who were the people to talk to in Lebanon. I went to Qana, one of the last towns before the border with Israel and, accidentally, met Hezbollah Man #1 in a restaurant off the highway.
He didn't want to give his name and sat shoveling food onto my plate and closely watching me chew, as if deciding how well I was enjoying the meal he'd insisted on buying me. When I had eaten the last of the food he nodded and assented to questions.
"Who is Hezbollah?" I asked.
"Hezbollah is all the people of my house," he said. "They are defending their lands, the farmers, and the houses. They are not terrorists. They are the party that defends Lebanon when the government can't anymore. The government is not qualified. The government can't defend Lebanon. Hezbollah is everyone."
He went onto say that Hezbollah could make peace with Jews, but not Zionists and that Hezbollah would only turn in their guns when they were "sure of real peace." Then he handed me a piece of gum and I went off to Sidon for an arranged meeting with Hezbollah Man #2.
Along the way I stopped in Qana and visited the place were in 1996 Israeli shelling had killed 106 people at a U.N. compound during an operation called "Grapes of Wrath." True to the frustrating nature of history, repetition, the 1996 massacre was followed during the July 2006 war by the bombing of a home just outside of Qana that killed 28 people in an event that became known as the "Second Qana Massacre." Near to where the bombs hit I met one of the survivors who, when I asked if she supported Hezbollah, said, "Of course. If this happened to you, you would go with the devil himself to get back."
In Sidon, Hezbollah Man #2 said, "If you understand Hezbollah, you understand Lebanon. You cannot take Hezbollah out from the structure of this country."
Looking at me with a progressively larger sneer he began some punditry. He believed the British had divided Greater Syria with the Sykes-Picot agreement in order for Israel to exist surrounded by weak states.
"The role of the U.S. is changing," he added. "They are trying to control the Middle East through Lebanon. We are an easy country to find an excuse to manipulate because of Hezbollah and the people being united behind them. Hezbollah stood up to Israel."
As it is with the majority of the conflicts in the region, the root cause of the Israeli-Lebanese war is the very existence of Israel. The two countries have officially been at war since 1948 and only show signs of furthering their antagonisms. Responding to attacks carried out by Palestinian militants launched from southern Lebanon, Israel invaded Lebanon in 1977 and 1982 and then again in 2006, when Hezbollah carried out its now infamous kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers during a cross border attack.
Both Hezbollah Man #1, who said he was a fighter and Hezbollah Man #2, who said he worked in the organization's social services division, believed Hezbollah to be defending Lebanon from an imposed threat and kept repeating, "You would do the same in our position."
Five weeks later, after traveling through Syria, Jordan, and Egypt, I arrived in Israel.
It was a return to the West. Where in Arab countries there would be cinderblock villages sitting on the sides of hills, here the houses looked similar to the houses in American suburbs, big buildings that were surrounded by trees with planned and well constructed roads leading to them. Women walked around in tank tops and shorts. Signs advertising the option of buying alcohol were once again everywhere.
The suburban feel was punctured somewhat by all the guns. Eighteen-year-old soldiers walked around with rifles. Some were patrolling or guarding buildings. Most were either hanging around in groups or traveling home on weekend leave. The soldiers carried the rifles slung low across their backs, in a way similar to how rock stars sling guitars around themselves. The security guards at malls and cafes, and even some random people walking around, also were armed. "Israelis aren't sure when they'll run into the next Arab terrorist," one person told me.
The fears were valid. A few weeks later a 19-year-old Palestinian man rammed a car into a group of soldiers walking in Jerusalem. Fifteen were injured by the time they shot and killed him.
Israel had been created after the majority of the international community acknowledged the long history of Jewish persecution and need for a Jewish homeland. Many of the people I met in Jerusalem, especially in the Orthodox community, had been born in the United States or Europe and had immigrated to Israel in search of a place they belonged.
"I was born and bred Jewish. My parents always told me Hashem was going to bring us back to the holy land, that the people were already going. Now I'm here and it's great," said an American named Josh who had come to Israel two and half years ago.
Raised in Kentucky, Josh had owned 300 acres of land, two trucks, and two motorcycles, but said he was never interested in the materialism of the United States and had sold it all to move to Israel. He never felt he fit with the rest of America and was routinely hassled by the police for his beard and long hair.
"Everyone was Christian or from a Christian background. They would be like, 'You're a Jew. You killed Jesus.' I'd be like, 'What?'"
When I arrived in Shorashim, a village about 60 miles from the border with Lebanon, Steve Judah and his son Alex were pulling branches from their backyard out to the road.
"We're making a bomb shelter," Steve said.
During the July 2006 war Hezbollah fired thousands of rockets into northern Israel. Many fell near Shorashim, one rocket landing just 100 meters from the Judah's house.
While eating dinner one night Steve said, "You see the beam across the ceiling? That's the strongest beam in the house. We get under that when the rockets start and put our backs against the wall and wait. First there is a siren and then about 15 minutes later the rockets start hitting. When they hit they make big booms and everything shakes."
"Hezbollah is back and rearming," said Sophie, Steve's wife. "They're getting back into their bunkers stronger than ever."
"It's an unfriendly neighborhood," Steve said.
Shorashim was founded in 1982 as a socialist moshav for immigrants from the United States, and though the community had since lost most of its socialist tendencies the village still largely economically self-sustained from a series of businesses set up by its residents.
A fence and electronic gate had been built around the village after children from the nearby Muslim village of Shaab had been caught stealing bikes and toys.
There was not now much communication between the two villages, but Steve told me that when Shorashim had been founded residents of Shaab had actually sent a delegation to welcome the newcomers to the area. A joint children's daycare center had been set up and Steve's brother had served for a time as the "official communicator" between the two villages.
The daycare eventually closed however because of a lack of funding and today the two villages largely did not interact.
When I asked more about Shaab, Steve said the inhabitants of the village had actually been Jewish until a Muslim invasion in the 7th century.
"Mohammad preached expansionism and forced conversion," he said. "His initial followers were tough, warlike people and Islam spread fast. They made it all the way into Spain."
"Now they've made it to France," Alex said in reference to Paris's predominantly Muslim suburbs.
"Yes, now they're in France," Steve said.
Sophie said she was worried about a nuclear attack from Iran.
"A bomb shelter wouldn't do much against that, but then I suppose you really wouldn't have to worry about much anyway then," Steve said.
Did they expect another confrontation with Hezbollah? I asked.
"Yes," Steve said. "You know what they say when you're watching a play. If there is a gun right there on the mantel in the first act then it's going to be used by the last."
The bordering of Israel and Lebanon has created a death trap that individuals on both sides are unapologetic for. The Lebanese are sure of the imposition and aggression of Israel and Israelis are sure of their right to exist and protect themselves. In each case there is enough truth that an end to the conflict, as it is with seemingly all the Middle East conflicts, is not around the corner. Peace can't even be spoken of.
**Justin Vela is a photographer based in Olympia, Washington.

Syria: The Player or the Game
By Mshari Al-Zaydi/Asharq Al-Awsat
So far the identities of those behind the recent car bomb in Damascus which resulted in the deaths of 17 people are unknown.
The Syrian Interior Minister said it was a terrorist act and, undoubtedly, it was indeed a terrorist act. The Syrian [Arab] News Agency [SANA] announced that whoever perpetrated the bombing is a member of a takfiri [the ideas embraced by those that hold other Muslims to be infidels] organization.
As usual, several Syrian journalists rushed to accuse Israel because it is not happy with Syria's rapprochement with France and the West. These journalists forgot or intentionally ignored the fact that the reason for Syria's rapprochement with France or the West - if we may use this categorization - is because it has started negotiations with Israel. So why would Israel be angry at a course that it started?
However, this is the traditional, silly, and ready-made accusation that is acceptable to the Arab recipient.
Even after the Syrian announcement accusing the so-called takfiris, there are three serious possibilities related to the bombing of the International Airport Road on the Al-Sayyidah Zaynab intersection:
The act could have been perpetrated by Al-Qaeda and jihadist salafi currents in general; or it could have been perpetrated by pro-Iranian parties because Iran is worried about Syria's openness on the West and on Israel and worried about the cost of this openness and its impact on Iran; or the bombing could be the result of internal settling of scores among the security organs as has happened several times in the past.
The prioritization of these possibilities is, as noted above, Sunni jihadist fundamentalists or Iran or the internal security organs.
In the following article, we shall pause a little at the first likelihood first because of its strength and soundness over the other possibilities and second, because of the shortage of space in dealing with the other two possibilities.
Regarding Al-Qaeda's possible involvement in this operation, we have several indications that we should not overlook. The relationship between the political and security regime in Syria with the Sunni jihadist currents is a strange and complex one. It is not a secret to any observer that the Syrian regime has been generous with the Al-Qaeda fighters that sneak into Iraq under the guise of the resistance. These fighters later joined fighting fundamentalist groups in Iraq under the command of [Abu-Musab] Al-Zarqawi or other Al-Qaeda commanders in Iraq. Many of those that have been handed over to Saudi Arabia and other countries have confessed that Syria had been a welcoming and rest station and a gathering point for those going to or returning from Iraq. A report published in the British newspaper The Guardian on 22 May 2007 and attributed to a military US source says: "About 80% to 90% of the foreign jihadist fighters in Iraq enter through Syria".
Naturally, Syrian officials continued to deny that Syria is involved in smuggling fighters to Iraq or even that it is closing its eyes to this fact. This is normal. Official Syria is not expected to admit this but the question that was always posed was: How could the fighters reach Iraq through Syria without the knowledge of the Syrian intelligence service that is notorious for exploiting all its senses to follow up on every whisper or hint that may disrupt the serenity of the regime? How could dozens or rather hundreds of entering and exiting fighters and suicidal bombers romp freely in the towns, neighborhoods and roads of Syria?
Even if we forget the above, how could a person like Abu-al-Qa'qa al-Suri or Mahmud Aghasi openly and publicly deliver resonating sermons in the mosques of Aleppo urging the youth to go and fight in Iraq and to actually send such youths there as he moved around in his robe and long beard? His sermons vie with those of Al-Zawahiri and are posted on the Internet. How could such a person move around so freely and with such agility? Was this a sign of the democracy of the regime and its patient acceptance of all viewpoints? Or was it an illicit collusion with Al-Qaeda along the lines of the common saying "I did not order it and it did not hurt me" even if it was said that Abu-al-Qa'qa was a mere tool that was cut off when its role was done. The man was killed in broad daylight in front of his mosque in Aleppo around the end of September 2007.
Perhaps the Syrian regime fell - as others have - in the famous illusion that they can toy with the terrorist fundamentalist bear at the beginning of the day and then get rid of it or put it back in its cage at the end of the day! This is an illusion that is repeated and always repeated in the Middle East region. No side wants to learn from the experience of others. Toying with religion and attempting to revolutionize religion or some of its aspects and then trying to benefit from this revolution on the political level without any repercussions or consequences is the biggest illusion of all. It is the first and last mistake because if you commit this mistake once it would be fatal and there will be no second time!
The regime saw with its own eyes the prelude of this fundamentalist agitation in the past few years. In June 2005, the Syrian Interior Ministry announced the dismantling of a terrorist cell that called itself "The Jund al-Sham" organization. This organization had prepared a scheme to carry out several attacks on several targets in Damascus and its outskirts, most prominently the Palace of Justice.
At this point, perhaps it is worth noting that Shakir al-Absi, the commander of the fundamentalist Fatah al-Islam group that clashed with the Lebanese army in the battles of the Nahr al-Barid [Palestinian refugee] camp used to travel around Syria merrily and with total freedom. He comes from Fatah-al-Intifadah that is run from Damascus by Khalid al-Umlah. The regime should also keep in mind that "Bilad al-Sham" [Greater Syria] that comprises most of Syria's territory is a strategic goal that should be reached in Al-Qaeda's imagination and thinking. "Bilad al-Sham" is the "Land of al-Ribat" that is blessed land and that was the center of the Umayyad Caliphate. It is the cradle of the Sunnis and the birthplace of Ibn Taymiyah, the symbol of symbols of the salafi currents. It is a land neighboring Jerusalem and, finally, it - that is Syria - is ruled by a sectarian and secular regime - according to the salafi fundamentalist currents - that should be fought. The fight against Syria is in the discourse of Abu-Musab al-Suri and others like him and it is the advice that Ayman al-Zawahiri gave to Al-Zarqawi before he was killed when he reminded him that the battle is not only in Iraq but in Greater Syria as well.
Some people say that President Bashar al-Assad is aware of this fundamentalist danger on him and that is why he deployed his troops toward Tripoli where the Sunni cauldron is seething. According to an analysis published in yesterday's Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar - that is close to Hezbollah and Syria - Bashar al-Assad has received the blessings of France, Turkey, the West, and those behind them to strike at these salafi currents. However, the adversaries of the Syrian regime in Lebanon argue that this is no more than instigation and a theatrical by Syria to fabricate an excuse to return to Lebanon anew, this time from the gateway of the fundamentalist peril that Al-Qaeda poses.
At any rate, the other two likelihoods that we said we would not discuss at length - the possibility of Iranian involvement through its cells that are planted inside the [Syrian security] organs or the possibility of internal settling of scores - have not yet disclosed to us all the names of the killed or the names of important people that were inside the security building that is close to the scene of the explosion. These two possibilities should not be ignored. Perhaps the target was a particular officer that knows some dangerous secrets - as was the case with Ghazi Kanan and Muhammad Suleiman - or perhaps the goal of the operation was to send a hot message from Iran from under the table to the one residing in the People's Palace in Damascus that maneuvering has limits and distancing from Tehran comes at a price and what a price!
Whether it was Al-Qaeda or the intelligence services of Tehran or the bears of the security regime [in Syria], the lesson that should be deduced by the decision-makers in Damascus that the time of calm has passed and that the fire that raged outside - whose flames and flying sparks pleased the regime - are now touching the hems of the Damascene robes. The most dangerous thing that the regime should fear is whether this fire is feeding on sectarian fuel.