For more about the Lebanese Maronites and the presidential election controversy see the links below:
Trouble in Paradise
I listened to the BBC radio 4 programme ‘From Our Own Correspondent’, which I normally avoid like the plague as the rhetoric from said correspondents is often banal, over flowered and worse of all a propagating exercise to die for. On this occasion I got as far as the BBC middle east foreign correspondent Jeremy Bowen admiring the fact that Syrians ate food prior to the invasion; or at least that’s how I described it to a friend. The comment I emailed to radio 4 was less than generous as I pointed out that it would have been more helpful if Mr Bowen had spoke out against the invasion of Syria at the outset, instead of waiting six years to lyricise about a book on its cuisine.
I am all too familiar with Mr Bowen, his being a fellow countryman of mine but I thought I’d revisit some of his exploits and came across an article saying he was shot at, in 2008, in the Lebanese Mountains. Not realising there were so many skirmishes between the rival dynasties in that year I wondered where in the Lebanese Mountains the incident occurred, as the mountain ranges span almost the whole of the country. It turned out it happened in the Chouf, near a town named Barouk that is said to be the line of demarcation with Bekka Valley.
The shots that Mr Bowen dodged were fired by the Druzes at Hizb’allah who were moving in on the former, thus the action was well justified. I’m not sure if there is a Shia population in the Chouf but know there is a Druzes population in Bekka Valley. Many Druzes support the Zionists of Palestine and in 2008 tensions were high in Palestine and Lebanon. The attacks on Gaza by the Israelis, which culminated into a full blown war later that year, began in 2006 after Hamas was elected in Gaza and Hizb’allah was battling it out with the Israelis in South Lebanon.
In addition the Lebanese election of 2005 produced a distinct polarisation of its political parties and resulted in the March 8th and March 14th accords, whereby the Maronites were again divided and Michel Aoun supporters joined the Shias and some of the minority parties in support of Syria. There are definite ideological differences between the Lebanese political parties and allegiances do change but surprisingly Mr Bowen, like lots of other western journalists, sees Lebanon as a benign little country, which is manipulated by the outside world.
A more comprehensive examination shows me Lebanon is incredibly war like or at least hard core, probably due to its history and tripartite character as it’s mountainous, tribal and cultivates hashish it appears to have more in common with Afghanistan than with its neighbour Syria. There the people tended to be quieter, more cultured and integrated. Readers may question this in the light of the current situation but there was a lot of provocation as well as the unleashing of extremism on the peope. In addition Syria is decidedly state socialist and as such an enemy of the west.
A travel tale
When I took trips to the Chouf on previous occasions the mini van from Cola bus station went south towards Saidon, did a left turn on the coastal road at Damour and continued winding around the mountain side to its various destinations, including Beit Ed’dine and Deir al-Qamar. In April last year it was different, my visit to the Chouf resulted quite by accident. I got my van from Jisr Mata (airport bridge), we headed off east to Bekka Valley and picked up a number Lebanese soldiers on the way out of Beirut. It was Friday so I suspected they were going home for the weekend; in Lebanon it’s ok to join the army on a part time basis. When we got to the point outside the capital where vehicles take a left turn towards Chtura and the valley, we did a right turn instead and began to climb upwards.
It was a while before I caught on that our destination was the Chouf and about another hour (due to traffic) before we arrived in a traditional Druzes town recognisable, as people were dressed in the traditional black with white head dresses. I’d walked out of Beit Ed’dine on a previous visit and attempted to get a taxi to Mukhtara but couldn’t spare the money so walked a short distance til I found a small pizzeria run by a couple of Druzes women who shyly made me my tasty Pizza. Otherwise my interaction with the Druzes population is scant.
In the van I did say ”this is the Chouf” to some of my fellow passengers but just received sarcastic shrugs, I suspect soldiers returning home for a break are not inclined to attempt small talk, in English, with the one foreign passenger and on that occasion the only women in the van. Of course an alternative explanation is that they thought I was nervous as there is so much talk about kidnappings in Lebanon but I’d guessed we were dropping of the soldiers. I’m not at all sure which town we stopped at but I suspect it was Moukhtara the capital of the Druzes area of Lebanon, as one of the remaining soldiers sat behind me repeating over and over Mukhtara, Mukhtara.
It was only after I’d seen the short film of Jeremy Bowen’s run in with Druzes militants that I realised there may have been some disquiet about our destination among my fellow passengers. After all we were headed for Bekka Valley, never the twain and all that. The last comment was meant to be a joke as some Shias join the Lebanese army as well as the other cultural groups.
Mukhtara is the home of Walid Jumblatt’s palace and Mukhtar is the Quranic name for chosen one, so powerful stuff. I’ve just read a few comments about the Druzes on the internet and believe there is a line of thought, which sees them as victims but not so. The Druzes are the sect to which British prime minister, Lord Palmeston gave arms in the 1800s so that Britain might wage a proxy war with France in Lebanon. It worked and resulted in a bloodbath some decades later as the French backed Maronites were slaughtered by the Druzes and fled to Syria in a bid for safety. It is the Maronites who control other parts of the Lebanese mountains and a Maronite who is always the Lebanese president. For more on this please see:
Druzes/Maronite war memorial, Beit Ed’dine
New President, new peace deals with Syria
On October 31st 2016, after a two year waiting period Michel Aoun, leader of the Lebanese Patriotic Movement was appointed president of Lebanon. His predecessor Michel Suleiman was president between 2008 and 2014 and was a member of the of rival Maronite party the Lebanese Armed Forces. Its executive chairman is Samir Geagea, another contender for the presidency until he dropped out of the race in early 2016. I don’t want to rehash previous posts but if you follow the links at the beginning of this entry you’ll understand the bloody, sometimes quite literally, rivalry between the two parties.
I believe it is expedient to say here that I believe Mr Aoun will not declare himself prime minister again, the act that sparked the civil war in 1975. The role of prime minister is reserved for the Sunni Muslim and the role of speaker for the Shias. As I recall this rule was introduced to bring the three majority denominations together but hasn’t worked out too well, so hopefully this time it will be different.With regards to the speaker Nabih Berri, leader of the Amal party, he has held the position for 25 years, no wonder Hizb’allah leader Hasan Nazrallah gets upset, mind you I don’t know if he has an ambition to be parliamentary speaker though the rivalry between the two Shia parties almost matches that between the two Maronite parties.
In my view the new president was always going to be Mr Aoun, despite his pro-Syrian leanings, primarily because his predecessor was from the Lebanese Forces Party and Mr Geagea was the other main contender. Having said that in 1975 Mr Aoun didn’t support Syria, rather he was a personal friend of Saddam Hussain, late president of Iraq. Another rather intriguing point is the allegiance struck, last year, between Suleiman Frangieh, leader of the Marada movement and newly appointed prime minister, Saad Hariri, who is in his second term.
When I wtote of the events of 2008 I failed to mention the assassination of Rafik Hariri esteemed leader and father of Saad. At the time Syria was accused of his murder by the west and by Mr Hariri himself but as far as I know the inquiry into the car bombing, which may have caused his death is still underway. Suleiman Frangieh is the grandson of the founder of the Marada movement, also Suleiman who was president at the start of the civil war in 1975. He is the son of Tony Frangieh who was murdered by the Lebanese Forces, led by Mr Geagea, in the late 1970s. Both the Free Patriotic and the Marada movements are part of the March 8th accord i.e. pro-Syrian and presidents run in the Frangieh family. My surprise at Mr Hariri’s support for Suleiman Frangieh stems though, from the fact that the Frangiehs are close personal friends of the al-Assad family.
Developments good for Syria
I know I get carried away with the subject of the Lebanese hierarchy but its important for Syria as it needs Lebanese support badly and at the moment the different faction are trying their best to bowl along together. Other than a few minor spats things are going well there politically, also president Aoun is invited to some talks in Jordan soon. Finally, I believe I’ve written this before but I noticed a Russian envoy visited Saad Hariri in Lebanon just months before Russia went in to bail out Syria and I don’t think it was a coincidence.
A tale from a mountain top, the old man of the hills, the Assassins
By the time Edward 1st (then prince Edward) of England joined the ninth crusade to the holyland in 1271 the battle was over but this didn’t prevent his being wounded by a poison dagger wielded by one of the Assassins or Hashishan (in Persian), the fanatical old man of the Lebanese mountains. The Assassins, derived from the Shia Ismailis, were said to lay in wait for the Christian crusader and who can blame them? In the case of Edward, he’d attempted to join forces with the Mongol Khan, then the ruler of Persia, to defeat the Saracens (Arabs) of Syria. The joint venture failed but the Mongols succeeded in plundering large areas of Arabic territory. Though the assassins may have originated in Persia (now Iran) they had no sympathy with the Mongol invader.
The Assasins have the reputation as one of the most lethal guerrila groups in history and were despised as heretics by by both Sunni and Shia Muslims. They were a persecuted denomination and their leader Hasan-i Sabbah and his people were fierce defenders of their territory. There were remains of an Assassin castle in Syria in 2005 but it may have been destroyed by now. It is likely, that as a guerrila force, the Assassins provide inspiration for Hizb’allah as they battle with the mercenaries in Syria. I suspect the method of combat is somewhat different as the attack by dagger used on Edward 1st was a typical method used by the their fighters.
Some photos of other parts of the Lebanese range, the Chouf, the top of the Lebanese Mountains, the Anti Lebanon range to the east and the mountain above Tripoli
Views from the Chouf
Views from the the Lebanese Mountains (top end)
Views of the Anti Lebanon range from Balbek
Mountain sights, north of Tripoli