Syrian Jihadist Groups Take Conflict

 

Lebanese soldiers carry the coffin of Sergeant Ibranim Zahraman during his funeral in the town of Akkar northern Lebanon, Feb. 2, 2013. Soldiers and gunmen were killed in clashes in the country’s Bekaa Valley on Friday after militants attacked a Lebanese army unit, security sources said. (photo by REUTERS)

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On Friday, Feb. 1, the Lebanese army lost two soldiers, a sergeant and a captain, who were part of a strike force unit that belonged to Lebanese Army Intelligence. The two soldiers died during a clash between the army unit and armed Sunni fundamentalists in ​​Arsal, which is near the Syrian border in the Bekaa Valley. That incident has many political and security dimensions and it confirms, as Al-Monitor has been reporting, that Jabhat al-Nusra is now in Lebanon and that the group’s activities are about to become public.

Lebanese military sources said that two days before the incident, the Intelligence Directorate of the Lebanese Army received information that Khalid Ahmed Hameed, who is wanted by the Lebanese judiciary, came to the town of Arsal from Syria, where a civil war has been raging for about two years. The sources said that Hameed is suspected of kidnapping seven Estonian citizens in the Bekaa on March 23, 2011, as they were riding from Syria to Lebanon on bicycles. There were held at an unknown destination for 111 days, before being released under mysterious circumstances as a result of secret negotiations between French security agencies and the intelligence arm of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces, which is close to former Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

The Lebanese official sources said that Hameed is suspected of being one of the field assistants of Hussein al-Hujairi, who is believed to be the kidnapping’s mastermind. The Lebanese government also received Western security reports raising the possibility that Hameed is linked to jihadists belonging to al-Qaeda in Iraq and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria. Hameed is also suspected of being involved in the shooting incident against the Lebanese army in Arsal on Nov. 22, 2011, to prevent an army patrol from arresting a Syrian jihadist named Hamza al-Qarqour.

Based on the above information, an elite strike force unit belonging to army intelligence went to Arsal to ambush the suspect and arrest him. The operation started around noon on Friday but the arrest operation was interrupted by an exchange of gunfire between the soldiers and the suspect, thus revealing the ambush to the jihadist groups residing in Arsal.

Several press reports said that the town’s mosques issued calls for all gunmen to pursue the army unit and block its escape. In a short period of time, the Lebanese army unit found itself surrounded by hundreds of fundamentalists and jihadists. The long gunfight resulted in the killing of the army sergeant and captain and the wounding of eight soldiers. Although the jihadists knew that they were fighting Lebanese army soldiers, they captured the bodies of the two dead soldiers, as well as the wounded and the remaining soldiers and took them to Arsal’s main square in what looked like a jihadist ceremony that involved celebratory gunfire and other practices, according to Lebanese press reports.

Similar jihadist celebrations over the bodies of dead Lebanese army soldiers happened on at least two previous occasions. The first time was on the night of Dec. 31, 1999, in the mountainous region of Dinniyah in northern Lebanon, near the city of Tripoli. Back then, a jihadist group attacked a Lebanese army post in an attempt to start a Sunni fundamentalist insurgency in the region. The second time was on May 21, 2007, when a group of jihadists belonging to the Sunni organization Fatah al-Islam attacked a Lebanese army checkpoint at the entrance of the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp near Tripoli. Seven army soldiers were literally slaughtered in that incident.

Because of several factors, what happened on Friday in Arsal marked a dangerous turn in the confrontations between the Lebanese army and Sunni jihadist forces. First, the jihadist forces today have strategic depth that provides them with support, supplies and sanctuary. That strategic depth is represented by the Sunni jihadist groups that are fighting in the Syrian civil war against Bashar al-Assad. Second, the area where the incident took place is geographically linked to several dangerous areas. It is connected to the Damascus and Homs countryside, which is where an Al-Monitor research report predicted will be the main area of a Lebanese-Syrian war. It is also connected to the tense demarcation line between pro-Hezbollah Shiites in Baalbeck and Hermel and certain Palestinian armed locations. Those factors were not present during the incidents in Dinniyah and Tripoli, because they are not linked to the Syrian depth nor to Lebanese Shiite areas.

Another important factor is that the incident coincided with a series of Lebanese crises that were caused by a Sunni fundamentalist “awakening” in Lebanon, as a result of the Syrian events and Middle Eastern developments over the past two years.

Last week, just before the Arsal incident, the personnel of a Lebanese TV station were threatened with death if they didn’t cancel the planned showing of a comedy skit making fun of Salafist Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, who is from Sidon, southern Lebanon. The TV station and those responsible for the skit backed down and complied. Near Assir’s headquarters in Sidon, jihadist Palestinian groups are solidifying their presence in Ain al-Hilweh camp, which is adjacent to Sidon and is Lebanon’s largest Palestinian refugee camp. Meanwhile, the northern city of Tripoli is still reeling from the recent attempted assassination of Youth and Sports Minister Faisal Karami by Sunni jihadist elements.

According to Lebanese cabinet ministers, those who tried to assassinate Karami have threatened Lebanese security forces about trying to arrest any of their members. Thus, the Lebanese authorities have been unable to arrest suspects involved in an incident that happened in broad daylight and in front of the cameras. In addition, the top mufti of the Sunnis in Lebanon recently issued in Beirut a fatwa, or religious edict, deeming any Muslim who supports the passage of a civil marriage law to be an apostate and outside of Islam.

So it seems that the four dimensions — the South, the Bekaa, the North and Beirut — forming a perfect storm for Sunni jihadism in Lebanon are now set. What will be the result of that development? We are passing through a very dangerous phase, which should be closely monitored by Lebanon, the region and the West.

Jean Aziz is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Lebanon Pulse. He is a columnist at Al-Akhbar Lebanese newspaper and the host of a weekly political talk show on OTV, a Lebanese TV station.

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Minister Faisal Karame’s Convoy Under Attack, Five Bodyguards Injured

Local Editor

Vehicle on fire

Minister of Youth and Sports Faisal Karame’s convoy was subject to fire shots by anonymous persons who later tossed an Energa-type rocket at one of the minister’s vehicles, setting it on fire.

The incident, which took place while the convoy was passing through the Azmi Street roundabout in northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, resulted in the injury of five of Minister Karame’s bodyguards.

W300

Minister Karame said in a televised statement that he was not hurt from the gunshots, pointing out that this act aims at “shaking the country’s stability,” yet assuring that “we will not be dragged to a civil war in Tripoli.”

Elements of the Lebanese Army deployed in the region and around the Lebanese Youth and Sports Minister’s house in Tripoli and set a checkpoint there.

On another hand, Minister Karame told Al-Manar TV that Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, PM Najib Miqati, and Parliament Speaker Nabil Berri condemned the attack in a phone call with him; while Head of the Loyalty of the Resistance Parliamentary Bloc MP Mohammad Raad called former Prime Minister Omar Karame and congratulated him on his son’s safety.

For his part, PM Omar Karame held a press conference Friday afternoon, in which he stressed that “we hold no grudge against anyone, we don’t accuse anyone, and we are certain that what happened was a mistake by some militants in that place.”

Karame called on “his supporters to be aware of the big responsibility that falls on us,” and pledged to “keep his vow no matter how the situation changed,” in indication to the former PM’s trust in the state’s roll.

PM considered that “the divine providence intervened to save Faisal Karame from a painful outcome.”

“We have passed through alot, we sacrificed with our blood for the sake of Lebanon’s unity, and we are always ready to present our blood so that the path of progress, development and peace continue,” he added.

Source: Al Manar TV
 

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Lebanon: Tal Kalakh Ambush Rocks Tripoli

Gunmen take position as one of them aims his rifle in Bab al-Tebbaneh neighbourhood, in Tripoli, northern Lebanon, during clashes On 5 December 2012. (Photo: Reuters – Stringer)
 

Published Wednesday, December 5, 2012
 

Four days after 21 Lebanese Islamists were killed as they crossed into Syria to fight alongside the opposition, clashes between Sunnis and Alawis in the northern city of Tripoli continue to spread and intensify.
 

On the morning of 4 December 2012, fighting broke out in Souk al-Qameh and Syria Street, quickly escalating from stabbings to the use of live rounds and the burning of shops after rumors spread of kidnappings by both sides.

Most of the city’s merchants immediately shut their doors as the army deployed into the hot areas, barricading those streets that connect Sunni Bab al-Tabbaneh with Alawi Jabal Mohsen.

The confrontations reached a fever pitch in the early afternoon as attempts to contain the fighting failed. Clashes soon erupted across the line of demarcation between the two communities, spreading to al-Qubba, al-Mankubeen, and al-Hara al-Baranieh.

This in turn led to a large-scale displacement as people fled the violence and Lebanon’s second largest city was completely paralyzed due to sniper fire along one of its main thoroughfares.

News circulated that two of Tripoli’s influential sheikhs, Salem al-Rifai and Hussam al-Sabbagh, were busy trying to contain the clashes, with Islamist sources confirming that “no decision has been made by any group to escalate, and the crisis will end within a few hours.”


Two people were killed as a result of sniper fire – one each from Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen – and 20 people were injured, including two soldiers and a member of the Internal Security Forces (ISF).

By nightfall, LBC television reported an additional death by sniper fire as the clashes continued to intensify, with the army becoming more assertive in trying to maintain control.

The parents of the Islamists who have gone missing or died in Tal Kalakh were reported to be in touch with the International Red Cross and the Lebanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, asking them to intervene on their behalf with the Syrian authorities to get their sons back.

In response to Lebanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Adnan Mansour’s request for help in returning the bodies of the dead Lebanese fighters, Syria’s ambassador to Lebanon Ali Abdul-Karim said, “For humanitarian reasons, we are looking into the case, and we will later announce the necessary steps that must be taken to resolve the matter.”

Foreign ministry sources reported that the Syrian ambassador promised to seriously follow up on the issue, but he did not give any details as to how many were killed and how many were captured alive, and whether the government intended to release the latter.

In the meantime, the families of the 21 who were confirmed dead held funeral ceremonies as their last wills and testaments were circulated on social networking sites.

Their parting statements suggest that they went to Syria to participate in jihad and that most of them identify as Salafis influenced by sheikhs who are close to the militant Islamist group, Fatah al-Islam.

“What can be confirmed,” Islamist sources told Al-Akhbar, “is that they went to Syria secretly, without notifying their families,” pointing out that “most of their parents are religiously conservative or Islamist, but did not agree with their children going to Syria.”

The reason for this, these sources added, is that in the view of many of the parents, “The idea of jihad in Syria is still unclear and hasn’t been fully developed. Some even viewed it as participating in a fight between Muslims and should be rejected.”

“Most of the sheikhs, including the Salafi ones, do not encourage fighters going to Syria to support the opposition at this time. They prefer that they stay in Lebanon in order to prepare for the decisive battle that will take place here, which is unlikely to happen until after the Syrian regime is toppled,” the sources added.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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A Day of Sectarian Violence in Lebanon


I feel obligated to write about this because all – ALL – Western media are complicit in the propaganda campaign of the pro-Saudi coalition known as March 14 (which is identified as “pro-Western” regardless of the prominent membership of Jihadi Salafis). What followed after the assassination of Wissam al-Hassan (head of a sectarian intelligence apparatus founded by the Hariri family on behalf of Saudi intelligence) is yet to be reported in the Western press. This is a story in which far-right Zionist media, Israeli media, and the Economist, the Guardian, the New York Times and Fox News all sound the same. If you are conspiracy-minded, you would think that they all receive their marching orders from the same source.

Basically, the Hariri militia all over Lebanon took to the streets and began a campaign of sectarian killings and beatings. They were bent on seeking revenge for the assassination of their sectarian intelligence chief: they know that they can push because the Lebanese prime minister is weak and is desperate for Saudi approval. They also took advantage of Hezbollah restraint: they know that Hezbollah is avoiding an all-out sectarian civil war, as much as the clients of Saudi Arabia are pushing for it.

What happened in Tripoli has become predictable: Salafi armed thugs habitually resort to shelling the predominantly-Alawi Jabal Mohsen because they know that they can get away with it. The armed groups of Tripoli are known as tools of the same intelligence apparatus that was headed by Wissam al-Hassan.



So, who wants civil strife in Lebanon?

The Tripoli Salafis include Bin Ladenites, but their presence is not acknowledged by the Western press, although al-Qaeda flags were on prominent display in the days of sectarian violence this past week. Western media still insist on ignoring the evidence of Bin Ladenites among the March 14 movement, just as they have succeeded on insisting that there are no Bin Ladenites among the gangs of the Free Syrian Army. The Alawis of Jabal Mohsen (a mere 5 percent of Tripoli’s population) used to be empowered by the presence of the Syrian regime army, but now have no support among the Lebanese population. In the Lebanese system of sectarian ranking, Alawis rank very low on the scale. The Alawis are sitting ducks and no one speak on their behalf. They are merely a step above the rank of Kurds and Gypsies and foreign maids.

‘al Qaeda-Hariri gunmen fighting the Lebanese National Army’

But the militia of Hariri also struck in Beirut. They made their presence known in various Sunni neighborhoods and starting shooting at the Lebanese Army. The weak Lebanese Army arrested two Palestinian boys and said that they alone were responsible for the mayhem in Beirut. The Lebanese Army announced their names and nationality because they don’t dare arrest any member of the Hariri militia. The last refuge of all Hariri politicians is sectarian agitation and mobilization. The arrest of any of their armed thugs would have immediately led to cries of sectarian persecution and the Saudi government would have issued a statement.

In Naameh, thugs of the Hariri movement stopped cars and asked whether passengers were Sunni or Shia. Those who were Shia were stopped and severely beaten. Scores of people were killed or injured. Yet, the New York Times’ coverage talked about conflict “spilling into Lebanon” without naming names and without identifying the killers. In fact, the New York Times coverage made it seem as if the Syrian regime was behind the shootings in Lebanon. The narrative can’t deviate from the simple one-track line of US media propaganda.

Future MP Oqab Saqr Funds, Arms, Kidnaps in Syria

To be sure, all Lebanese sides are involved in the Syrian conflict, but none are as involved as the Hariri faction. Saad Hariri had to acknowledge last week that his assistant, Oqab Saqr, was involved in Syrian opposition affairs, but he implied that his work is… purely charitable.

The scene in Lebanon this past week was part of the legacy of Wissam al-Hassan. When the Hariri militia fled the scene on 7 May 2008, the Intelligence Branch of al-Hassan relied on an alternative scenario.

They increased their sponsorship of Salafi and Bin Ladenite groups in Lebanon.

A friend of al-Hassan, Wiam Wahhab (a pro-Syrian regime politician with little popular support), appeared on TV and said that al-Hassan told him that his visit with Petraeus last month dealt exclusively with the Tripoli-based armed Salafi groups. These are now the orphans of Mr. al-Hassan.

The Lebanese Army intervened but only after the blood was shed and the sectarian lines in the sand were drawn with fire. The Hariri movement has a long history of recklessness and brinkmanship. But the restraint of Hezbollah has worked in the latter’s favor thus far. That may change soon and that could not possibly be in their favor, or even in the favor of their allies in Syria.

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The Wrong Way to Change the Government

The leadership of the Lebanese Forces and the Phalange Party called upon their constituents to come out in large numbers without raising the possibility of any further escalation. (photo: Haytham alMoussawi)
 

 

Published Monday, October 22, 2012
 

After it appeared that the Lebanese government was on its way out – with Prime Minister Najib Mikati suggesting on Saturday that he would resign – the ministers’ moods changed completely after March 14 protesters attempted to storm the government’s main headquarters in downtown Beirut.

The protesters had gathered on Sunday in Beirut’s central district to bury former head of the Internal Security Forces’ (ISF) Information Branch Wissam al-Hassan, who was killed in a car bombing on Friday afternoon.

Many ministers are now predicting a new lease on life for the government, saying that March 14 handed them this gift “on a silver platter,” due to the violent turn that the funeral took on Sunday.
 

Mikati was in high spirits by the end of the weekend after receiving calls from the UN general secretary as well as from both the US secretary of state and France’s foreign minister. The state department also declared than Hillary Clinton and Mikati had agreed on “the US providing assistance in the investigation into the assassination” of Hassan.


Echoes of such international reassurances for Mikati have even reached Saudi Arabia, which will be receiving the prime minister in the coming days as he arrives in Mecca to make his hajj pilgrimage to the holy site.

Lebanon’s Mufti Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Qabbani and head of ISF Ashraf Rifi also came out in support of Mikati. The mufti declared his opposition to bringing down the government by force, while the security forces – with the help of the army – defended the government headquarters and kept protesters away from Mikati’s home in Tripoli.

The Christian parties within the March 14 coalition were already beginning to talk about the composition of the new government after they heard reports that President Michel Suleiman was not eager to change the government until a credible alternative exists.

March 14’s Christian parties tried to act in a balanced manner on the eve of Sunday’s funeral: on the one hand, they wanted to mobilize the largest possible numbers; and on the other, they did not want to raise their demands beyond what their Future Party allies would accept.

“If [Future party leader] Saad Hariri chooses to resort to popular pressure to bring down the government, we will be with him; otherwise a large turnout will suffice and we will leave any ratcheting up of pressure for later discussions,” according to a March 14 activist.

On the the eve of the funeral, the leadership of the Lebanese Forces and the Phalange Party called upon their constituents to come out in large numbers without raising the possibility of any further escalation.

By the end of the funeral, following some provocative speeches and media calls to attack the government’s headquarters, Christian protesters were at the forefront of those who charged the building, believing that the decision to do so was coordinated at the leadership level.

This was why Lebanese Forces and Phalangist flags and placards dominated the crowd that clashed with the security forces and army personnel protecting the government compound. Their party leaders were taken aback by the scene and called on them to immediately retreat. Phalange sources even claimed that their pictures and flags were used in the clashes even after their members withdrew from the scene.

For the Christian leadership in March 14, besieging the government headquarters is crossing a red line, due to the building’s significance in the eyes of their Sunni allies in the Future Movement. An attack of this kind is something that even Saad Hariri himself could not contemplate. This led to calls by virtually all March 14 leaders to pull back, while maintaining the goal of toppling the government.

Phalange Party sources say they are basing their actions on two constants: first, they will continue to demand that the government resigns and to call for the formation of a national salvation government, in accordance with what party leader Amin Gemayel told the president.

Second, “there is no truth behind the general view that Western diplomats asked Mikati to remain at the head of the government. Those ambassadors who were asked by the Phalange maintained that their priority is stability, not the government,” one Phalange leader insisted.

As for the Lebanese Forces, their calls center around demanding that the current government be replaced by one led by March 14, along with a refusal to negotiate with the March 8 parties on the composition of any new government before the current one resigns.

The Christians of March 14 are now asking themselves what will happen next, after their failed assault on the government headquarters. Even though they may not all agree on the imminent fall of the government, they are all seeking to take full advantage of Hassan’s assassination ahead of next year’s parliamentary elections.

These are some of the views they share:

First, that the West is concerned about stability and could be convinced of keeping the government in place if it can keep its promises. However, March 14 also believes that the assassination of Hassan will make Mikati more beholden to Hezbollah, given the anger it sparked on Mikati’s home turf in the North.
Second, that Mikati benefitted from the assault on his office and managed to use it to maintain his position as prime minister. He also succeeded in gaining the support of Mufti Qabbani and Mufti of the North Malik al-Shaar, both of whom rejected evicting the government by force.

Third, March 14 will not return to the national dialogue roundtable, making changing the government a precondition for their future participation. In this matter, it appeared that they won over the president in backing such a stance.

Fourth, March 14 was hoping to evict the prime minister after having mobilized the street against him within 24 hours of Hassan’s assassination. There is, however, an unspoken concern among many in the coalition’s ranks that it may have wasted an ideal opportunity to do so, with the funeral giving the government a new lease on life instead of ending it as March 14 had hoped.

Hiyam Kossayfi is a journalist at Al-Akhbar.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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March 14 Military Wing Seizes Tripoli

Smoke billows in Tripoli’s Bab al Tabanneh neighbourhood during clashes with Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, in Jabal Mohsen area in northern Lebanon, on 22 October 2012. (Photo: AFP – Joseph Eid)
 

Published Monday, October 22, 2012
 

The violent reactions to the assassination of General Wissam al-Hassan, head of the Internal Security Forces’ Information Branch, have redrawn the political map of the northern Lebanese port city of Tripoli.

As soon as news of Hassan’s assassination spread on Friday, armed groups, including masked men, took to the streets. They shot their weapons towards the sky and demanded that shops immediately shut down. They burned tires in the streets and public squares and sealed off all the main roads into Tripoli, completely paralyzing the city.

Armed groups also attacked the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) and Islamic Unification (Tawhid) Movement (IUM) headquarters, triggering 15 minutes of armed clashes before the army intervened to stop the fighting. Sheikh Abdul Razzaq al-Asmar from the IUM was killed in the clash.

The precarious and rapid security deterioration over the weekend brought back memories of the 7 May 2008 events when the March 8 coalition took over most of Beirut and demanded that Future Party’s offices be handed over to the army.

In the past two days, a decision was made and immediately enforced to give the Lebanese Army control of the SSNP and IUM headquarters in al-Jummaizat and Abi-Samra streets, respectively. The decision was made after an emergency meeting at North Lebanon Governor Nassif Qaloush’s office, which was attended by SSNP and IUM representatives.

Analysts say these latest developments clearly show how the military power scales in Tripoli have dramatically tipped since 2008 in favor of the opposition March 14 forces – with a new cocktail alliance of Islamists and groups loyal to Saad Hariri’s Future Movement.

Future managed to attract extremist Islamist forces to form a reliable alliance. In addition to the remnants of the well-known “regiments” in the city, the alliance managed to draw on zealous and mercenary Islamists, as well as Palestinian militants. Syrian opposition groups later joined, adding to its military power.

As of mid summer, the new Future-led alliance has engaged in 12 rounds of clashes around the Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen area, where its gunmen gained “combat experience.”

Analysts say a lack of security and political coordination among the March 8 coalition also contributed to strengthening its rival alliance after the 2008 clashes. When the situation on the ground began to tip in favor of the March 14 team, it began to gradually gnaw at the clout of the March 8 camp in the city.

The Jabal Mohsen neigbourhood appears through a hole

With the decision to keep the SSNP and IUM under the army’s care, Jabal Mohsen becomes the only area in Tripoli outside March 14 military control. Snipers, mortar shelling, and other attacks on Jabal Mohsen continued throughout Saturday and Sunday, wounding four people.

Observers say this shift on the ground threatens the political diversity and pluralism the city has historically enjoyed as it gradually comes under the control of a single faction whose affiliations extend from the Future Movement to the Islamists and the Syrian opposition; groups that appear to be united by their common enemy more than a shared vision for the country.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.
 

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It was only yesterday …

FLC

… that many in Lebanon, especially in 2006′ when Israel aggressed Lebanon, started saying that they have had it with Lebanon having to pay the dearest in lives & treasure in the Arab-Israeli conflict, …  

and even some went so far as asking the rhetorical question, “seriously, what did Israel do to us?”, totally discarding the monumental & many decades’ old plight of the Palestinian People, & the cruel history of Lebanon’s experience with that usurping huge settlement called israel…

Basically, they (Culture of Life) were saying that Lebanon is suffering economically from Israeli aggressions BUT mostly, from the insolence of ‘some’ (Culture of Death) who decided to stand up and resist. The sectarian schism between the ‘moderate pragmatists’ & the ‘insolent resisters’ saw the most major plates shift since the War on Iraq! 

TODAY, the SAME ‘moderate pragmatists’ who were all about ‘Lebanon First’, Love Of Life, reconstruction, business opportunities & ‘stability-uber alles’, have taken upon themselves to bring down the regime of a neighboring Arab country, even if that risked generating spasms of regional & sectarian clashes.

 
 
‘Life-Lovers in Tripoli’

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