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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

By Patrick J. McDonnell and Nabih Bulos, Los Angeles Times

BEIRUT — Authorities said roads across Lebanon were reopened Wednesday following a tense evening of road-closing protests linked to the war in neighboring Syria.

Clashes erupted late Tuesday between demonstrators and security forces as protesters used burning tires to block a number of roads throughout the country. The Army fired warning shots and used tear gas to disperse protesters and several injuries were reported, according local media accounts.

Fallout from the Syrian war has resulted in a wave of sectarian-fueled car bombings, gun battles and rocket and mortar strikes in Lebanon, causing profound instability.

The mostly Sunni Muslim demonstrators shutting down roads on Tuesday were themselves protesting a blockade of the largely Sunni town of Arsal, close to the Syrian border in the northeast Bekka Valley. Residents in the nearby, predominantly Shiite town of Labweh put up sand barriers to block access to and from neighboring Arsal after a number of rockets allegedly fired from there fell on Labweh.

Lebanon’s major Muslim sects have generally taken opposing sides in the three-year-old Syrian war. A disparate rebel force composed of mostly Sunnis is fighting to oust the government of Syrian President Assad, who is supported by Shiite Iran and by Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite political and paramilitary organization.

Tensions erupted in the border zone on Sunday after Syrian troops backed by Hezbollah militiamen overran the long-time Syrian rebel bastion of Yabroud, situated close to the Lebanese border. An Al Qaeda-linked Sunni faction later claimed responsibility for a car bomb that exploded Sunday evening in a mostly Shiite town in the Bekka Valley, killing two Hezbollah members.

Lebanon’s Arsal has become a rear-guard hub for Syrian rebels fighting in the Yabroud area and elsewhere in Syria. Rebels travel back and forth across the porous border and wounded fighters receive treatment at clinics in Arsal, which also hosts tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, mostly Sunni.

But the only road to Arsal on the Lebanese side passes through Labweh, where Hezbollah enjoys strong support. Residents of Labweh and other mostly Shiite areas say Arsal has become a safe haven for militants conducting rocket and car-bomb attacks on Shiite districts.

The official Lebanese news service reported Wednesday that the road to Arsal had been reopened, along with other arteries nationwide, and that the Army and other security forces had been deployed in the border area with Syria. Officials appealed for calm and the government was holding high-level talks in a bid to defuse tensions and bolster security in the border zone.

AFP Photo/Galiya Gubaeva

Trump speaking at Londonderry, NH rally

Screenshot from YouTube

Donald Trump once again baselessly claimed on Sunday that the COVID-19 pandemic was "going to be over" soon, just hours after his chief of staff suggested the administration was unable to get it under control.

"Now we have the best tests, and we are coming around, we're rounding the turn," Trump said at a campaign rally in Manchester, New Hampshire. "We have the vaccines, we have everything. We're rounding the turn. Even without the vaccines, we're rounding the turn, it's going to be over."

Trump has made similar claims on repeated occasions in the past, stating early on in the pandemic that the coronavirus would go away on its own, then with the return of warmer weather.

That has not happened: Over the past several weeks, multiple states have seen a surge in cases of COVID-19, with some places, including Utah, Texas, and Wisconsin, setting up overflow hospital units to accommodate the rapidly growing number of patients.

Hours earlier on Sunday, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows appeared to contradict Trump, telling CNN that there was no point in trying to curb the spread of the coronavirus because it was, for all intents and purposes, out of their control.

"We are not going to control the pandemic. We are going to control the fact that we get vaccines, therapeutics and other mitigation areas," he said. "Because it is a contagious virus, just like the flu."

Meadows doubled own on Monday, telling reporters, "We're going to defeat the virus; we're not going to control it."

"We will try to contain it as best we can, but if you look at the full context of what I was talking about, we need to make sure that we have therapeutics and vaccines, we may need to make sure that when people get sick, that, that they have the kind of therapies that the president of the United States had," he added.Public health experts, including those in Trump's own administration, have made it clear that there are two major things that could curb the pandemic's spread: mask wearing and social distancing.

But Trump has repeatedly undermined both, expressing doubt about the efficacy of masks and repeatedly ignoring social distancing and other safety rules — even when doing so violated local and state laws.

Trump, who recently recovered from COVID-19 himself, openly mocked a reporter on Friday for wearing a mask at the White House — which continues to be a hotspot for the virus and which was the location of a superspreader event late last month that led to dozens of cases. "He's got a mask on that's the largest mask I think I've ever seen. So I don't know if you can hear him," Trump said as his maskless staff laughed alongside him.

At the Manchester rally on Sunday, Trump also bragged of "unbelievable" crowd sizes at his mass campaign events. "There are thousands of people there," he claimed, before bashing former Vice President Joe Biden for holding socially distant campaign events that followed COVID safety protocols.

"They had 42 people," he said of a recent Biden campaign event featuring former President Barack Obama. "He drew flies, did you ever hear the expression?"

Last Monday, Rep. Francis Rooney (R-FL) endorsed Biden's approach to the pandemic as better than Trump's, without "any doubt."

"The more we go down the road resisting masks and distance and tracing and the things that the scientists are telling us, I think the more concerned I get about our management of the COVID situation," he told CNN.

In his final debate against Biden last Thursday, Trump was asked what his plan was to end the pandemic. His answer made it clear that, aside from waiting for a vaccine, he does not have one.

"There is a spike, there was a spike in Florida and it's now gone. There was a very big spike in Texas — it's now gone. There was a spike in Arizona, it is now gone. There are spikes and surges in other places — they will soon be gone," he boasted. "We have a vaccine that is ready and it will be announced within weeks and it's going to be delivered. We have Operation Warp Speed, which is the military is going to distribute the vaccine."

Experts have said a safe vaccine will likely not be ready until the end of the year at the earliest, and that most people will not be able to be vaccinated until next year.

Trump also bragged Sunday that he had been "congratulated by the heads of many countries on what we have been able to do," without laying out any other strategy for going forward.

Nationally, new cases set a single-day record this weekend, with roughly 84,000 people testing positive each day. More than 8.5 million Americans have now contracted the virus and about 225,000 have died.

Trump, by contrast, tweeted on Monday that he has "made tremendous progress" with the virus, while suggesting that it should be illegal for the media to report on it before the election.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.