On New Year’s Eve 2011, I asked a senior Swedish diplomat, who had just crossed over from Damascus and was ready to see in the New Year Beirut-style, how long he gave Bashar al-Assad as Syrian president. ‘Longer than we think, but not as long as he thinks,’ he said with a wink.
That was still in the days of what we naively called the Arab Awakening; we Lebanese assumed we could sit back and wait for Syria’s hated system to fall. But the weeks have turned to years, and not only is Assad still in place, he might just be prevailing. Lebanon, meanwhile, is falling apart.
Fighting alongside Assad’s troops, arguably tipping the conflict in his favour, are up to 7,000 mercenaries from the Lebanese Shia party Hezbollah, which is once again driving a wedge through Lebanese society. The Party of God was the darling of the Arab world after it fought Israel to a draw in 2006, but it has drifted from its admittedly dubious core business of defending Lebanon from ‘Zionist aggression’ and taken sides in Syria, presumably on the orders of its paymasters and spiritual bosses in Iran.
Hezbollah used to be cagey about its role in Syria. Not any more. Its secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, recently admitted in public that his fighters were indeed helping retake the strategic border town of Qusayr — and they will in all likelihood be first on the team sheet when the regime masses to regain -Aleppo. That risks plunging Lebanon, which has an almost even Sunni-Shia split among its Muslim population, into another full-blown conflict. Sectarian tensions defined by the ebb and flow of the Syrian civil war are escalating by the day.
From the start of the Syrian uprising in the spring of 2011, Lebanese prime minister Najib Miqati declared a policy of neutrality. It was always doomed. Hezbollah is militarily stronger than the state, and it receives its orders from Tehran, which sees the Assad regime as crucial to its regional ambitions. On the Sunni side, meanwhile, Lebanon’s porous northern border poses few logistical problems for those Gulf states keen to funnel money and arms to the Syrian opposition.
Gone are Lebanon’s days of impressive economic growth and Gulf Arab bling. Instead of free-spending tourists, it has a million Syrian refugees — equivalent to 25 per cent of the population. There is no functioning government, security is fragile and the economy is in tatters.
Tripoli, the country’s second biggest city, is a war zone, with daily clashes between the Sunni neighbourhood of Bab al Tabbaneh and the Alawite area of Jabal Mohsen, a local feud that mirrors the war a few miles east. Elsewhere, parts of the Bekaa Valley, especially the border town of Arsal, have turned violent, while West Beirut and the southern city of Sidon, both predominantly Sunni, -simmer.
And how many of those million refugees would be required to take the fight to Hezbollah within Lebanon? Surely less than half of 1 per cent. Indeed, the fightback may have already started. On 25 May, Beirutis woke up to the news that Shiyah, a Hezbollah–controlled suburb, had been rocketed. The big fear is a Baghdad-style car bomb.
But while many Arabs wonder how a party supposedly based on dignity and honour could side with a regime that’s slaughtering its own people, Hezbollah maintains that its activities in Syria are simply an extension of its solemn duties as the Lebanese resistance. One of its MPs, Mohammad Raad, said recently, ‘The rifle of the resistance is still pointed at the same Israeli enemy, but the enemy has created a new frontier behind our backs, near our Bekaa and north, with the aim of stabbing us in the back, employing a bunch of Takfiri remnants through conspiring with regressive oil countries that have nothing to do with democracy.’ For many years the Arab street would have lapped up this sort of nonsense, but Israel is no longer the only bogeyman. Assad and his Lebanese allies, who for decades portrayed themselves as leading the fight against a convenient Israeli enemy, are now objects of hate among Lebanon’s Sunnis, for several reasons.
Traditional religious rivalry aside, the Sunnis accuse Hezbollah of being involved in the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, and they still feel humiliated by Hezbollah’s attempted coup against a pro-western government in 2008. That was the first time Hezbollah’s sacred guns had been turned ‘inwards’: the doubts created then became more serious when it took up arms for the Assads.
The Shia rank and file, meanwhile, is convinced that Hezbollah had no choice but to intervene in Syria; that it is helping roll back an al-Qa’eda-inspired jihadist movement that wants to plant the flag of Sunni ultra-conservatism in the Levant. (Hezbollah is also guided by Islamist ideology, but this tiny detail is overlooked.)
Meanwhile, sporadic shelling by the Syrian army and punitive attacks by its air force, in which Lebanese property is targeted and civilians are killed, are becoming more frequent. Miqati’s inept and mildly pro–Syrian Lebanese government made only token bleats of protest at these repeated violations, failing to summon the Syrian ambassador, let alone expel him. Then it resigned — Miqati is still prime minister, but as a caretaker — and things became markedly worse.
And what of Israel? The Jewish state has made it clear — to the extent of launching an air strike on a Syrian target — that it will not tolerate the shipment of advanced missiles from Assad’s arsenal to Hezbollah. But all the hostile rhetoric and brinkmanship could easily spark another war, one that neither side really wants. Hezbollah knows that it would not have it as easy as it did in 2006, while Tel Aviv knows that any move against the party in South Lebanon would have to be decisive and would probably result in casualties that it is reluctant to bear.
The Swedish diplomat’s aphorism still holds… just. But in the meantime the Beirut Central District, rebuilt by Hariri after the 15-year civil war as a symbol of hope and regeneration, is almost a ghost town. The shops are empty and the even the normally gregarious Lebanese aren’t going out like they used to. The ghosts that flit about the empty streets might auger a new cycle of violence in this spirited, generous and beautiful but accursed country. Tragically for the Lebanese, their fate is once again in the hands of others.
Michael Karam is a former executive director of Now Lebanon.