Syrian Crisis Threatens Fragile Balance in Lebanon

Article Summary
From the cafes of central Beirut to the Hezbollah-controlled city suburbs and tense areas along the Syrian border, Mete Cubukcu takes the pulse of Lebanon as violence rages across its northern frontier. He discusses the recent history of Syrian-Lebanese relations and how the present crisis is likely to affect Lebanon’s delicate sectarian balance.

Syrian soldiers may not be visible around Beirut anymore, but everyone — from the average man on the street to political analysts — agrees that Lebanon is divided over the Syrian issue, and that this split may well result in another civil war.

No matter the circumstances, Beirut and Lebanon are unique in the region. Those who fought yesterday might be allies today. The country may always be tense, but trade, art, music, politics and partying never stop. Like they have always done, people simply live their lives. Everyone is as conditioned to the ostentatious luxury displayed by the nouveau-riche class as they are to the miserable poverty visible in the Sabra and Chatila Palestinian refugee camps. The downtown area built by Rafik Hariri and his company, Solidere, before he was killed erased Beirut’s spirit with its “contemporary kitsch,” and abandoned the city to the rich and the tourists. A little further up the road, shelled remnants of the civil war await their new greedy owners.  To transform a street once destroyed by the civil war into a bar district creates a surreal atmosphere. The rich from the Gulf and Saudi Arabia still escape to Beirut for a fling — a mark of the hypocritical nature of their regimes.

Syria has Divided Lebanon

The Dahiye district in the south of Beirut, a Hezbollah stronghold that was partially leveled by Israel in 2006, is being rebuilt. You cannot enter that neighborhood without permission, and every telephone pole has posters of Hassan Nasrallah, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Bashar al-Assad. Students from the still-important American University of Beirut hail from more than 70 countries around the globe. They fill cafes near the University without much concern for other parts of the city.

Communists left over from the civil war sit in their own pubs adorned with posters of their struggle and photos of an array of leftist leaders and drinks, set to the songs of Fairouz. Although less visible nowadays, 76-year-old Fairouz is not merely an object of nostalgia; she is an important part of Lebanese history. Like Egypt’s Oum Khaltoum, here, Fairouz is a diva — a monument of respect because of both her artistic talents and her political resistance during the civil war. The difference between the French-style bistros and new-generation chain cafés of the Hamra neighborhood illustrates the divide between generations. It is as if life in Beirut flows on its own without anybody interfering, without anybody willing to do to anything new. Electricity cuts are frequent, but you don’t feel it because the city is divided between generator mafias. Generators are a $1.5 billion market. But because no government can predict what will happen three to five months down the road, there are no attempts to build a new power station or to confront the mafias. Internet in Lebanon is provided by smart entrepreneurs operating servers in side streets. The police, instead of trying to open the way for an ambulance desperate to reach the hospital, hassle us. TV has been taken over by nauseating Turkish series that even we haven’t heard of. There is no doubt that these series have caused minor tremors across the region. It is not the Turkish state that many hold as a model, but rather these TV series that enchant popular attention. One common refrain is, “Hey, they are Muslims, we are too.” But, at the end of the day, it’s back to politics.

Lebanon is a microcosm of the Middle East. It has served as a the battleground for the proxy wars of the region. Now, once again, the Syrian crisis has the potential to redefine Lebanon. Syrian soldiers may not be visible around Beirut anymore, but everyone from the average man on the street to political analysts agree that Lebanon is divided over the Syrian issue, and that this split may well spawn another civil war.

You may not feel it in the streets, but the nasty debates taking place in the media and across political circles are reminiscent of the 2005 split after the assassination of Rafik Hariri. The March 14 political faction is supported by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the West. The Syrian army, which settled in Lebanon 30 years ago, was forced to withdraw following the protests in 2005. Many accused the Syrians of Hariri’s murder. Although this has yet to be proven, the March 14 group still believes it. They are opposed by the March 8 group composed of Hezbollah, the Amal movement, the Christians following Aoun and Syria. The situation in Syria has sharpened the rift between two groups, and it has the potential to deeply affect Lebanon as it did in the past.

From a Resistance Front to a Shiite front?

Hezbollah and its leader Nasrallah stand behind the Syrian regime, claiming that pressures on the regime in Damascus actually aim to destroy the resistance front against Israel. Their position has fostered the impression that the resistance front is now becoming a Shiite front. Should the Syrian regime fall, the new balance of power in Syria may very well inflame sectarian divisions in the region, first and foremost in Lebanon.

Since the arrival of the Syrian army during the civil war, Syria has by all accounts practically run Lebanon in the domains of politics, the military, international relations, intelligence and trade. It did not even open an embassy until 2006 because, after all, Lebanon was but a part of Greater Syria.

There is no border demarcation between Syria and Lebanon and there never was. Recently, some areas have come under the control of the Lebanese army. For Syria, Lebanon remains a backyard. However, nowadays it is a backyard used by both the Syrian regime and its opponents.

There are those who say it is wrong to interpret everything in Lebanon from a sectarian point of view. Not all Sunnis are directly involved in the developments taking place in Syria. Some Christians fear a “radical Sunni” phenomenon.

What do they think of Turkey? Both sides are skeptical of Turkey’s regional policy. They say, “Turkey is confused. It implements US policies and has lost its sectarian impartiality. It is a rookie, inexperienced in the ways of the region.”

The Syrian issue is serious and dangerous. But the Lebanese people hold on to the belief that they will rise like a phoenix from the ashes thanks to their political acumen, skills in trade and intellectual capabilities — and their love of life.

Found in: syrian crisis, syrian, security, sectarianism, rafik hariri, march 8, march 14, lebanon, lebanese society, lebanese politics, lebanese history, lebanese civil war, lebanese-syrian relations, hezbollah, hassan nasrallah, fairouz

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