Syrian sparks light tensions in Lebanon By Jenny Gustafsson
Analysis and commentary on the recent outbreaks of violence in Lebanon triggered by ongoing tensions in neighboring.
The Lebanese are well aware their destiny is tied to that of their Syrian brothers and sisters, and have every reason to feel anxious about what comes next. The question is whether current events are any more of a threat than those they have lived through before: This is not the first time Lebanese society has seemed deeply divided, or that the region has been at boiling point. Nonetheless, the impact of mounting sectarian tension in Syria is already being felt in its coastal neighbor
The sunny Saturday in late May seemed like any other in Lebanon; outdoors cafés filled with visitors, seaside promenades sporting joggers and families, every highway leading out of Beirut clogged with people eager to escape the urban heat. But it was not business as usual everywhere in the country. In the north deadly street battles were being waged in the Lebanese city of Tripoli. Armed men had turned Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh, neighboring but politically divided neighborhoods, into a battlefield. The gunfire and clashes were a concrete indication of the further deepening of Lebanon’s entrenched political divisions as tensions in Syria spill across the border.
After a week of fighting 11 people had died and over 100 been left injured. And more worrisome news was soon to come. The following Sunday, May 20, well-known Sheikh Ahmed Abdul Wahid and a companion were shot dead at an army checkpoint just north of Tripoli. Within hours people were up in arms. Tires were burned and main thoroughfares across Lebanon closed off. In Beirut rivaling factions took their weapons onto the street in Tarik El-Jdideh, a densely populated and impoverished suburb. For the Lebanese, what they had been expecting for over a year -- that the crisis in Syria would spark violence in their own country -- had suddenly become a reality.
The street battles were not isolated events. There had been several recent incidents: kidnappings in the Bekaa Valley and along the Syrian border; shootings -- on several occasions fatal ones -- by the Syrian army across the border; xenophobic attacks on Syrian workers in Beirut. On the weekend of June 2-3, another deadly round of fighting hit Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh, this time leaving 15 dead and many more wounded.
Lebanon is no stranger to sudden outbreaks of tension. The 15-year long civil war between 1975 and 1990 left the population deeply divided and much of the country in ruins. Politics since then has been an uphill struggle. The process of rebuilding is difficult; that of reconciliation even harder. Absent, many would say. Wounds have yet to heal, and the legacy of hostility among the country’s communities continues to make itself felt. Recent years have seen numerous outbreaks of violence: the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005; a devastating war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006; fighting over the Palestinian camp Nahr el-Bared in Tripoli in 2007;
street battles in 2007 and 2008, and so on. Each time there is talk about a new impending war -- a further symptom of the country’s chronic instability and of how people have grown accustomed to it. Today, with neighboring Syria seemingly irredeemable polarized, there is no shortage of speculation.
Fifteen months in Syria
Since the uprising in Syria began 15 months ago, the Lebanese -- well aware how deeply connected the two countries are -- have followed developments closely. “Now, all people have their gaze turned to Syria. Every single politician in Lebanon is waiting to see what will happen there,” says Lebanese journalist Ghassan Saoud. “Syria at this point is everything.” When the demonstrations started, few thought they would lead to where we are today. “Syria is different,” observers said. Commentators assumed there was not the same discontent with Syrian President Bashar al- Assad as there had been with deposed leaders Muammer Gaddafi or Hosni Mubarak. Assad, meanwhile, was seen as a “popular leader.”
As things turned out however, the protests spread, spurred by the regime’s crackdown. Today, it remains as steadfast and harsh as one would expect from the efforts of an authoritarian regime desperately trying to stay in power. Sources today put the death toll in Syria at between 10,000 and 15,000. “And that’s not all,” says Jasmine Roman, who writes on Syria from Damascus under a pseudonym. “Added to that is the problem with a large number of people who are detained, missing and internally displaced.”
Syrians have also grown increasingly polarized. The situation is uncertain, and exit options are few. “I didn’t expect our revolution to be easy, not at all,” says Mustafa Haid, a Syrian human rights consultant, “but I also didn’t see it being this complicated and brutal.” He continues. “Things stayed peaceful for a long time, but they have lately turned more violent. This is a response to the regime’s quelling of the protests. They have deliberately been targeting the peaceful activists: imprisoning them, scaring them, forcing them to flee the country or go underground. That sparked what we see today: lots of violence and counter-violence.”
The Syrian-Lebanese connection
From the Lebanese horizon, this is not a positive sight. The two countries, like all colonial creations, are relatively recent and contested states. Before World War I, Syria and Lebanon belonged to a commonly administrated unit under the Ottoman Empire: the historical “Greater Syria,” which covered the land between the border with Iran and the Mediterranean coast. A century later, familial, social and economic ties remain strong. Politically, it has been an uneasy relationship, to say the least. During the Lebanese civil war, Syria was one of the chief antagonists, something well remembered by many Lebanese. Syrian civilians too have suffered from this, especially workers in Lebanon, often associated with their regime’s divide-and-rule policies.
In Lebanon’s north relationships between Syrians and Lebanese are often close. The border has always been porous: Farmers are used to grazing their animals on both sides and families cross to visit
relatives and friends. Economically too, the region is closely connected. Tripoli and its surroundings are dependent on Syrian workers and cross-border trade. In the Bekaa valley in Lebanon’s east, the situation is similar. It is also here that most of the Syrian refugees live. At least 26,000 people have come to Lebanon, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the number is expected to rise. In the north it is local communities that have shouldered the largest responsibility. Many refugees stay with families who have opened their homes. “From the first people who came, they have been generously hosted by people in the area,” says the UNHCR’s Dana Suleiman. “Some are housing relatives or friends, but many of them are previously unknown to these families.”
A house divided
When the uprising in Syria started, it was no surprise that many in Lebanon’s north quickly embraced it. “There are lots of people in and around Tripoli who identify strongly with the revolution,” says Haid. “They feel that it’s their revolution too.” Lebanon as a whole, however, is deeply divided on the issue. Politically, the country was already split before the uprisings. But the past 15 months have seen divisions pronounced and reinforced. The political divide separates two alliances: March 8 and March 14. March 8 is currently in parliamentary majority and gathers the largely Shiite Hezbollah and Amal as well as half the country’s Christian population. March 14, ousted from the national leadership last year, is led by the largely-Sunni Future Movement party, allied with the other half of the Christians.
Both sides follow the established pattern of political parties in Lebanon: They appeal to communal sentiments, calculate their tactics meticulously, and know how to shape facts to fit their own narratives. Politically they represent two different visions for what Lebanon is. March 8, heralding the concept of “resistance” to Israeli and Western dominance of the region, is close to the Syrian regime. The bloc’s supporters are skeptical of the Syrian revolution, seeing it as an attempt to change the regional order with the backing of the West. March 14, on the other hand, maintains close ties to Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, and countries in the West. For them, Syria’s uprising represents a legitimate revolt and an occasion to remove Assad, a bitter enemy, from power. Both understand well that whatever the end result, it will determine their own political future. Granted, in Lebanon there are many who refuse to position themselves on either side of this divide. To them, the country’s political system is flawed and serves to perpetuate national divisions. These voices, however, rarely manage to make real political impact.
Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh are more than rival neighborhoods. In many ways, they serve as a metaphor for the country at large. Hostilities between them date back to the years of the civil war, when both were victims of horrible acts: killings, disappearances, destruction, a massacre in Bab al-Tabbaneh in 1986. Today, writes International Crisis Group, “wounds have yet to heal; memories are fresh; identities are defined primarily by victimization, yesterday’s suffering, persistent threats and the prospect of revenge.” There is also something else that remains at the very core of the hostilities, something that continues to haunt Lebanese society and stifle any attempts at reform: sectarianism. In fact, to speak in terms of communal interests and divisions has been a political practice for so long now that it pervades much of what takes place in the country. When political divisions sharpen, so do those that separate Sunnis, Shiites, Christians and others. From this perspective, there is more to the recent fighting than different political factions clashing. Bab al-Tabbaneh, with its Sunni majority, represents one side in the larger SunniShiite polarization; Alawite Jabal Mohsen the other.
Confessional sentiments, writes sociologist and author Samir Khalaf, “have always have been effective sources of social support and political mobilization in Lebanon.” But, sustained by “the psychology of dread, hostile bonding and ideologies of enmity” they keep
BOTH SIDES FOLLOW THE ESTABLISHED PATTERN OF POLITICAL PARTIES IN LEBANON: THEY APPEAL TO COMMUNAL SENTIMENTS, CALCULATE THEIR TACTICS METICULOUSLY, AND KNOW HOW TO SHAPE FACTS TO FIT THEIR OWN NARRATIVES
people apart rather than binding them together. At the moment, sectarian divisions appear to be growing rather than diminishing in Lebanon, throwing complicated concepts like identity, belonging and kinship into the political mix.
At a moment when no one can foresee which turn Syria will take, Lebanese leaders are nevertheless doing their best to figure out how to play their cards. Saad Hariri, son to the murdered Rafik and leader of the Future Movement party, is currently experiencing the most serious challenge to his authority. Having been away from the country for over a year, he has lost touch with his supporters and the situation in Lebanon. Many of the armed men in the streets come from his voter constituency. Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah, is in an equally tricky position. Aware that his rhetorical support for Assad has put him in a bind -- the movement’s claim to represent the weak and oppressed sits uneasily with backing a brutal regime -- he nevertheless maintains his loyalty to the status quo in Syria. But Hezbollah understands the need for a solid fallback plan in case the revolution succeeds. Lebanon’s Christians are split between supporting the revolution and the regime. Like other minorities in the region, many Christians fear what the alternative to the current order will bring, and stick with the logic of “better the devil you know.”
In Syria too, communal tensions are increasing. Well aware that neighboring countries like Lebanon and Iraq were torn apart with the help of sectarian slogans, many Syrians are watching these developments with dismay. “People have started to think ‘this is not my revolution anymore,’” says Haid. “They feel marginalized when chants become sectarian, and when the ones getting the most attention are the armed groups. They don’t identify with that.” He continues: “People are also realizing how infected Syria is by sectarianism. Top positions in the country are always given to people from certain sects, and the ones in charge of security and intelligence are people close to the Assad family. These seeds have existed for a long time, but people are starting to water them now. The regime, of course, is doing all it can to portray the revolution as sectarian. To some extent, it has succeeded.”
Where is the social contract?
The Syrian unrest certainly triggered Lebanon’s tensions, but the spillover factor should not be exaggerated. The Lebanese events operate according to their own logic: the street battles, the killings and arrests, the rise in sectarian discourse -- these are all symptoms of a dysfunctional state. The country is today characterized by recurrent political deadlocks, weak citizen rights and a general lack of accountability and social justice. These are problems with deep historical roots that are not being addressed in a serious way by any political party. “Lebanese politics is a mean colonizing machine,” writes sociology professor Ghassan Hage. “It devours everything and politicizes anything it touches, even that which desires to be outside the political.”
In the region, Lebanon has an image of being a relatively prosperous place with beaches, restaurants and entertainment. True, to some extent, but the country is also grappling big socioeconomic disparities. There is a real and growing frustration among people who live on the margins of society. According to the latest United Nations Development Program (UNDP) figures, nearly one-third of Lebanese live in poverty4. With prices tripling over the past few years, basic necessities like housing, gas and electricity are hard to afford for many. “The Lebanese are victims of extortion and fraud,” writes Khalaf. Abu Fuad, a resident of suburban Tripoli, struggles every day to provide for his family. “In Lebanon, there is no such thing as rights,” he says. “If you don’t have money, you have nothing.” He continues: “You see what’s happening all over the Arab world? That’s because our leaders want everything for themselves. They never ask people what they need.”
It is people in informal settlements, remote rural communities and urban slums who are worst off. Northern Lebanon is overrepresented. In Tripoli, 57 percent live below the poverty line. The area has higher unemployment rates, more school dropouts and a weaker social security presence than other parts of Lebanon. “There’s government neglect and a feeling among people that they are forgotten,” says Julie Davidson, a Beirut-based development researcher. “There are still villages in 2012 that don’t have government electricity and have to build their own roads.” Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh are at the heart of this deprivation. The two might be bitterly divided politically, but they are united in their vulnerability. Here, youth illiteracy -- an indicator of how the next generation is faring -- is the highest in Lebanon. Some 20 percent of young men cannot read and write. “It’s hard to believe how much poverty there is in Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen,” says Tripoli resident Nada Yassine. “The situation is very hard for people: there are no jobs, no opportunities. They have no one to turn to but religious leaders. And in Tripoli today there are plenty of radical figures, influenced by Iran or Saudi Arabia.”
This idea of foreign influence is not something new to the Lebanese context. The first half of the country’s civil war was largely a proxy war between opposing regional and global powers (the other half was fought perfectly well between the Lebanese themselves). After peace was reached, Israeli troops continued to occupy southern Lebanon; the Syrian regime dictated much of what took place elsewhere. A telling joke from that time goes: “In Lebanon, you can criticize the Lebanese president as much as you like, but you cannot say a word about the Syrian leader.” Syria was forced to withdraw following massive popular protests in Beirut in 2005, leaving Lebanese politicians with a more room to influence issues themselves. But politics continued to be
entangled in the regional web: March 8 representing Syrian and Iranian influence, March 14 the agenda of Saudi Arabia and the West. Today, power struggles in Lebanon and Syria alike are played out along these lines.
The situation in both countries is fed by the same forces, expressing themselves in similar ways. “What we see now, in both Lebanon and Syria, is that several proxy wars are being fought,” says Haid. “One between Iran and Saudi Arabia, another between US and Russian interests. Turkey, as an emerging regional power, is also involved. This involvement from outside has a lot to do with stirring sectarian sentiments.” While local powers have an interest in safeguarding their own interests and spheres of influence, Western players are eager to secure political allies, economic partners and friends who will allow them to establish military bases and provide them with oil.
Since the Arab uprisings started, there has been much talk about the so-called “Turkish model” and how it can be a template for post-revolutionary state building. With the situation in Syria growing thornier, interest in Turkey’s role is increasing. The country with the longest Syrian border, Turkey has many reasons to be concerned with developments in their neighborhood. Frictions in the past include Syrian support for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and long-standing disputes over water. There are also strong economic ties linking the two, with major Turkish investments in Syria.
Relations today are strained. The amount of armed men on both sides of the border is growing: the prorevolution Free Syrian Army operates from the Turkish side; Syrian troops fire across the border from the other. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s criticism of the Assad regime has been both vocal and harsh, making it clear that Turkey no longer is an impartial player in the Middle East.
WHAT IS HAPPENING IN LEBANON IS VERY MUCH A REPETITION OF A FAMILIAR CYCLE: CLASHES ERUPT; THE MILITARY TRIES, HAPHAZARDLY, TO RESTORE ORDER; THE FIGHTING CALMS DOWN; THINGS RETURN TO NORMAL
What is happening in Lebanon is very much a repetition of a familiar cycle: clashes erupt; the military tries, haphazardly, to restore order; the fighting calms down; things return to normal without any of the underlying causes having been addressed. The difference today is that Lebanon’s other half, Syria, is in a quite literal state of existential crisis. For half a decade Damascus was ruled by a harsh and calculated sense of pragmatism -today, nothing about its future is certain. The Lebanese, all too well aware that their destiny is tied to that of their Syrian brothers and sisters, have every reason to feel concern about what comes next. But such anxiety is nothing new. Today is not the first time Lebanese society has seemed irreversibly split, or that the region has been at boiling point. Many past incidents could have led to the flare up of a new civil war, but did not.
Since shaping the actions of outside powers is beyond what Lebanon can do, a sensible plan of action would be to focus on rebuilding itself; to strengthen state institutions, provide citizens with equal rights, foster an inclusive political dialogue and address social injustices. The deadly street battles did not take place in Beirut’s wealthy neighborhoods -most of them took place in what is being called “Lebanon’s forgotten city.” In a situation when sectarian affiliations are open for exploitation -- and political leaders are ready to take advantage of that -- frustration and deprivation easily turn explosive. As for Syria, the only thing there seems to be a consensus on is the uncertainty of the situation. “I see many scenarios for Syria’s future, but all of them bad,” concludes Haid. “It’s emotionally hard to get used to the idea of settling with a bad scenario because it’s better than the really bad one. But Syrians are starting to understand that this is probably the case.”
Lebanese Sunni Muslim women throw rose petals on an ambulance carrying the body of Sheikh Ahmed Abdul Wahid, a Sunni Muslim cleric shot dead by Lebanese soldiers. May 21, 2012
Lebanese Muslims and Christian clerics at an anti-war protest in Beirut organized by activists and former militiamen who were fighters during Lebanon’s civil war (19751990). May 31, 2012
The civil war in Lebanon left the city of Beirut devastated.
July 14, 2002