Sectarian Nightmares in Syria and Lebanon

More than two-thirds of the French polled for Le Figaro oppose any involvement in a US-led strike on Syria and as both Washington and Paris await the outcome of a Congressional debate the report below warns of inflaming the situation in both onetime French mandates.

Map showing the French Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon after the collapse of the Ottoman empire (Wikipedia)

Map showing the French Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon after the collapse of the Ottoman empire and which ran from 1918 to 1945 (Wikipedia)

The report below is republished with permission and thanks under a Creative Commons license from Open Democracy.

Lebanon’s sectarian nightmare

ANWAR RIZVI 8 September 2013
With the spectre of a three or four way sectarian conflict (the Druze would most likely join in) looming large, the Foreign Minister and his government are quite clearly in a panic mode.

Visiting Beirut after a gap of almost 20 years, one of the first things that struck me was the sense of normality. A walk along Hamra Street with its chic fashion stores and eateries shows Beirut at its glamorous best. Further north, in the suburban town of Jounieh, the bars and nightclubs overflow with patrons and on the hilltops of Mamalteine, the lights of the famous Casino du Liban shine as brightly as ever.

My last visit to this most cosmopolitan of all Middle Eastern cities was in early 1992, less than 2 years after the end of the 15 year civil war.  Then, Beirut still gave the visitor a sense of foreboding. The airport itself was going through a makeover and much of the city resembled a huge construction site.  Military checkpoints operated by both the fledgling Lebanese army as well as the occupying Syrian army were very much in evidence.  The difference between then and now could not have been more stark.  The airport, renamed after the assassinated Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, is modern and efficient. The road leading into the city could be mistaken for a busy highway in any major capital city of the world.

But there are tell-tale signs of nervousness. Rolls of barbed wire and bomb proof barriers have once again made an appearance in the city centre.  Just a few days before I arrived, there had been a major gun battle between the Lebanese army and followers of a Sunni cleric in the port city of Sidon. A few days after I left, bomb blasts rocked the Hezbollah dominated suburb of Dahyieh.  Walking along the narrow alleys of this Shi’a dominated suburb, large posters of the Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei alongside Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah Secretary General, adorn every lamp post. The yellow flags of Hezbollah (party of God) flutter from every street corner, pro-Hezbollah graffiti is posted on every wall. In this part of Lebanon, the word of Hassan Nasrallah is law.

There have been more recent additions to the posters adorning the streets of Dahieh, photographs of young men who have lost their lives in Syria. It is here in Dahiyeh, that the faultlines that threaten to rip Lebanon apart become glaringly obvious.  For the Hezbollah, after almost two years of quiet support, joining the battle in Syria in support of its sole Arab ally is no longer a matter of choice. The party sees it as a matter of survival. For Hezbollah’s enemies, of whom there are now many in Lebanon, the party’s support of the Syrian regime & its active involvement in the Syrian civil war is nothing short of treason and a prelude to all our sectarian conflict.

Pierre is a Christian who fought with the Maronite militia during the Lebanese civil war. Now a successful businessman, Pierre has no doubts as to the direction Lebanon is heading in. “Look Anwar, the civil war never really ended.  All that happened was that people signed a piece of paper and put away their weapons. Then everyone got busy making money.” He shows me his AK47 that he has held on to just in case. “I am not the only one” he tells me. “All the people that I fought with in the civil war, they have all kept a weapon at home because in Lebanon you cannot be too careful.” Pierre has  a good relationship with members of the Hezbollah, many of whom are his clients. “I don’t have an issue with the Hezbollah as such, although I don’t agree with their involvement in Syria. But for us the Christians, they are the only people in Lebanon who can stand up to the extremists.” By which he means the Salafist Sunnis.  Pierre believes that there will be sectarian violence on a major scale and that the Christians would not be able to stay neutral. “Right now, there is no one in Lebanon powerful enough to take on the Hezbollah, but the situation is changing. There are many foreign fighters in Syria who will head to Lebanon to help their Sunni brothers, as well as many Syrians who see Hezbollah as their enemy number one. They would love to settle some scores. There are a lot of weapons coming into Lebanon and the balance of power is shifting.  The Christians would end up taking sides & I think many will choose to support the Hezbollah.”

Heading north towards the port city of Tripoli, my Sunni taxi driver shared some of Pierre’s sentiments. “Very bad situation Sir.  This year no one came from the Gulf. Business very bad. Soon we are gonna have war” he says ruefully.  Tripoli has become an early battleground for what everyone believes to be an impending all out sectarian war. Clashes between the small Alawite minority in the city and the majority Sunni population have been going on for months. While there are Lebanese army checkpoints manning the front lines, on the streets of Tripoli it is Sunni militiamen that run the roost. Here, the posters are of young Sunni men who have died fighting alongside their brethren in Syria. The flags are of the Syrian revolutionaries and the graffiti is virulently anti-Assad and anti-Hezbollah. Listening to the Friday sermon in Tripoli’s Grand Mosque, I got a sense of the pervasive anger being felt by folk in the city. People I spoke to after the Friday prayers were unanimous in their views on who they felt was responsible for this crisis, in one word Hezbollah. As I tried to speak to an acquaintance after Friday prayers, a small crowd of very angry looking young men gathered around us. “We hate the Hezbollah. We hate Hassan Nasrallah. He is the enemy of Lebanon & he is the enemy of Islam” was their common refrain. Perhaps as an intended insult, they called him an “Iranian” who should get out of Lebanon & “go back to Iran and take all his followers with him”. My acquaintance, holding more moderate views, felt slightly threatened and decided that it was best for us to leave.

With every passing day, and with every major incident the sectarian chasm in Lebanon seems to get wider. The bomb blasts in Dahiyeh were followed by 2 major blasts outside Sunni mosques in Tripoli. Sunnis & Shi’as blamed each other while some politicians seemed to lay the blame on Israel. Whoever is the culprit, there can be no doubt that the very slow & painful process of nation building that has been taking place in Lebanon since 1990, is now in imminent danger of coming apart at the seams. As the Syrian civil war drags on, and the threat of direct military intervention by the US and some allies (Britain no longer included) becomes reality, the strains on Lebanese society are only likely to get worse.  Adnan Mansour, the Lebanese Foreign Minister, has already warned of the dangers of foreign intervention in an interview to the Associated Press, suggesting that “any international military action against Syria would pose a serious threat to the security & stability of the region, particularly Lebanon.”

With the spectre of a three or four way sectarian conflict (the Druze would most likely join in) looming large, the Foreign Minister and his government are quite clearly in a panic mode. They sense that should the Syrian crisis continue unabated, regardless of the US led military intervention, they will eventually be overtaken by events and the fate of their country will be decided, yet again, by external powers.  The only hope is that having already looked into the abyss in the not so distant past, the main protagonists will take a step back and put the interests of their country above their own agendas.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 licence
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