News that the Syrian regime has agreed to hand in its arsenal of chemical weapons is a great relief to Lebanon. For the past few weeks we have been wandering around like inmates on death row, fearing that a US-led strike would ignite a potentially apocalyptic conflict between Hezbollah and Israel or at the very least provoke a prolonged internal Shia-Sunni terror campaign. This was no idle fear. The salvos fired at the end of August brought back memories of the darkest days of the civil war.
But Lebanon is still not in the clear, especially as a framework for handing over the chemical weapons still needs to be thrashed out. Sectarian tensions persist and there is the small issue of more than a million Syrian refugees in a country that has barely enough infrastructure for its own people. Oh yes, and an economy that has gone into deep freeze.
Beirut is no longer a party town. The tourists have gone, foreign investment has slowed to barely a trickle and businesses are defaulting by the day. There are whispers of Christians selling up and leaving. Unlike 1975, when they opposed the growing power of the PLO, this is not their fight.
The rest of Lebanon is divided into pro and anti Syrian camps, a position that is reflected in the country’s two main political blocs — each with their own outlandish conspiracy theories. Roughly half the country believes the rebels gassed their own people — in the same way they believe it was not Damascus but either Israel, the CIA or even al-Qa’eda that gave the order to kill former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. Why? Because the world is run by a US-Zionist cabal, of course.
Meanwhile, those who back Assad forget a glaring contradiction: that in this apparently desperate fight against Muslim fundamentalism, Hezbollah, Syria’s ally and Iran’s proxy militia, has a core Islamic ideology equally as creepy as al-Nusra or al-Qa’eda.
But both sides of the Syrian divide would admit to a nagging sense of doubt, to knowing that this conflict is not morally clear-cut. Apart from the very real danger of al-Qa’eda’s fiendish ideology taking root in the region, deep down they also know that democracy can’t be uploaded like new software. Egypt proved that, but Lebanon already knew from its own experience.
The 2005 Lebanese ‘Cedar Revolution’, in the wake of the Hariri killing, was the most significant popular uprising in modern Arab history. It threw up a slogan of ‘freedom, sovereignty and independence’ and led to the withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon after three decades of occupation. But it was a fluke. It worked because for a brief moment the Sunnis and the Christians and Druze were auspiciously aligned against a common Syrian enemy.
And yet no country is closer to Syria than Lebanon. It was, after all, one and the same until 1920 when the French general Henri Gouraud delineated the state of Greater Lebanon. My Lebanese grandfather was born Syrian and one of my Lebanese aunts was called Souria — ‘after my land’, she would say proudly.
The Syrian regime still feels it has a historical claim on this narrow sliver of land. Indeed since its own civil war began it has shown scant regard for Lebanon’s territorial integrity, bombing and machine-gunning Lebanese frontier towns and villages with impunity.
And it is the Lebanese foreign minister who is often summoned by the Syrian ambassador when the regime wants to complain about the flow of arms to the rebel forces through the country’s porous northern border, while in a recent Arab League vote on censuring the Assad regime the Lebanese abstained. Everyone understood. It was all a bit too close to home.
The Syrians know we are dysfunctional. The former Syrian interior minister, General Ghazi Kanaan, head of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon from 1982 to 2002, uttered these chilling words of both encouragement and caution in 1991.
‘You Lebanese, you are shrewd, creative and successful merchants,’ he said. ‘Create light industries. Engage in trade and commerce. Indulge in light media, which does not affect security. Shine all over the world by inventiveness, and leave politics to us. Each has his domain in Lebanon: yours is trade; ours, politics and security.’
Patronising? Yes. Unfair? Perhaps not. That Lebanon has lurched from one crisis to another since 2005 speaks volumes for our inability to run our own affairs as much as it does for the ruthless efficiency of the Baathist jackboot.
And despite the humiliation of being run by Syria, and the brutality, many Lebanese would prefer the regime to endure, especially since the stakes are higher and Lebanon is at its most brittle since the early 1990s.
On 14 August a car bomb exploded in the Shia Beirut suburb of Rwais, killing 24 people — most likely a message from the Syrian opposition to Hezbollah. It was the biggest blast in over 20 years in terms of casualties, but the record didn’t stand for long. One week later, a blast ripped apart two Sunni mosques in Tripoli killing more than 50 worshippers and bystanders. Game on.
The Lebanese know all too well that the Syrian civil war won’t be slowed down by any limited military strike. They know this is not an uprising against an outdated ruling class. It is a religious conflict drenched in centuries of hatred that threatens to engulf poor neighbouring Lebanon.