Letter from Beirut

Ominous signs

Print edition : September 20, 2013

People gather at the scene of a car bomb explosion in Ruwaiss, southern Beirut, on August 15. Photo: Hussein Malla/AP

Flames rise from the site immediately after the explosion in Ruwaiss. Photo: AFP

An aerial view of the Zaatari refugee camp, home to 1,20,000 Syrians, on July 18. Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP

The street in front of Tripoli's Taqwa mosque being cleared of debris after an explosion on August 24. Photo: Omar Ibrahim/Reuters

Syrian refugees by the side of a road in Beirut on July 22. Photo: JAMAL SAIDI/REUTERS

Outside the Salam mosque in the northern city of Tripoli after a car bomb explosion on August 23. Photo: Bilal Hussein/AP

A base of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (General Command) in Naameh, the target of an Israeli air attack on August 23. Photo: Hussein Malla/AP

Beneath the apparent calm, anticipation of violence structures daily existence in Beirut as car bombs go off in the city and Israel launches retaliatory air strikes in southern Lebanon.

CALM exudes from Beirut’s ancient pores. The old neighbourhoods seem the same, life carrying on with a resilience that is familiar to this city. The pulsing beat of dance music streams out of the many nightclubs from St. George’s Bay to the trendy areas of Achrafieh—a generation born after the civil war (1975-89) cannot imagine war, and the generation that experienced it cannot imagine its return. But bomb blasts in Ruwaiss (Beirut) and then at the Taqwa and Salam mosques (Tripoli) have rattled Lebanon. The weakened Lebanese state is after the assailants, but rumours are already afoot as to their identity. Was it the Israelis or an anti-Bashar al-Assad group that left the car bomb in an area whose political commitment is to Hizbollah? Was it a pro-Assad group that attacked the Salafi mosques in Tripoli? Is this a sign that the violence of the Syrian war has finally spilled over into Lebanon?

The Syrian war itself has certainly impacted the region. Refugees continue to stream across the Syrian borders into Iraq, Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. Deadly fighting between the Kurdish popular protection units (YGP) of the Kurdish Supreme Committee and Al Qaeda-inspired Jabhat al Nusra in Syria’s Al-Hasakah, Ar-Raqqah and Aleppo governorates pushed 40,000 Kurds and others into Iraq between August 17 and 20. Battles in the regions near the Lebanese border have brought more refugees into Lebanon. There are now a million Syrian children amongst the refugees, with 350,000 registered Syrian children in Lebanon itself. They can be seen along the Corniche, peddling flowers or asking to shine your shoes. In abandoned lots, Syrians can be seen eating a meal, or sitting and wondering what will befall them.

Little confidence resides in the anaemic peace negotiations called Geneva II between the United States and Russia over Syria. Regional partners are not part of the formal dialogue. There is no call for a regional conference to tackle the political conflict inside Syria, not even the refugee crisis. Jordan teeters on the edge of collapse because of the influx of refugees—the 120,000 Syrians in the Jordanian camp of Zaatari make it the country’s fourth largest city. Despite the rough-and-ready conditions in the camp, it has taken on the look of a permanent city. There is little coordination on the refugee problem with the U.N. Agency tasked with these matters, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which is stretched beyond limit. Financial pledges that come from the powers are rarely met, and emergency streams of refugees (into Iraqi Kurdistan as on mid-August) push the logistical abilities of the agencies to the limit. A regional conference on refugees would, at the very least, bring the neighbourhood into a dialogue on a practical matter, and perhaps raise confidence for a regional intervention to calm the armed state of Syria.

News of an alleged chemical weapon attack outside Damascus unsettles the fragile situation. U.N. disarmament chief Angela Kane rushed to Syria, leading a team to investigate the area of Ghouta, where 500 to 1,000 people are believed to have been killed. Before her team even made it to the site, the U.S. and the European Union said that they were convinced that this was a chemical weapon attack and that this was “a big event of grave concern”, as President Barack Obama put it. Even though a debate remains alive in Washington, D.C., between those (such as Senator John McCain) who would like to see an immediate U.S. strike on Syria and those (such as President Obama) who would like to use the threat of military force rather than a strike, a fourth U.S. warship has entered the Eastern Mediterranean and is waiting off the coast of Lebanon, ready to strike Syria. There is no stomach in the U.S. to send its warplanes over Syria because of a reputed air defence system in Syria, nor is there any wish to commit ground troops to Syria. It is unlikely that missiles fired from warships would do more than cosmetic work—it would suggest that the U.S. has done something but it would not change the balance of forces in Syria. This could happen if the U.S. decided to pummel Syria, but even that seems off the table at present.

The U.S. bluster threatens the area, but Israeli warplanes have already struck Syria several times and Lebanon in late August. The threat of an Israeli attack is always on the cards for Lebanon, whose people anticipate such violence, suggests the anthropologist Sami Hermez, the way the British discuss the weather. “The war is going to ignite,” goes the popular sentiment, a war between Israel and Lebanon that has remained alive since 1948. Rockets fired from south Lebanon were met with Israeli air strikes on Naameh, south of Beirut, near a base of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (General Command). It is an ominous sign. The interim government in Lebanon hastened to complain to the U.N., warning that any escalation in the context of the Syrian imbroglio would be terrible. The U.N. commander, Major General Pablo Serra, concurs. “After receiving the news about the air strike, I was in contact with the [Israeli] army commander, stressing upon them to cease any offensive military operation. I also called on the [Lebanese army] commander, emphasising the need to exercise maximum restraint to avoid undesired consequences.”

“We are worried about the spillover from Syria,” a U.N. official told me. “But what we are really worried about is Israeli escalation against Lebanon. That would be catastrophic.”

What stays the hand of the U.S. and Israel with regard to Syria is that the rebellion has been slowly but surely hijacked by elements that are deeply anti-American and anti-Israeli, notably the Jabhat al Nusra. They do not seem to worry about the strain of sectarianism that has begun to flourish in the region. That is a tiger that they believe they can ride, since sectarianism is a key method to weaken the Arab world to the advantage of the Global North and Israel.

The idea of the Iranian axis is part of this encouragement of sectarianism—to pit Hizbollah against the Salafis, and vice versa, as the bombings in Lebanon seem to do. But if the U.S. and the Israelis do not wish to overthrow Assad’s regime, their game is unclear.

Some people believe that the game is to remove Assad but to maintain his deep state, which will then be used to crack down on Jabhat al Nusra. Others fear that this strategy would lead Syria into Afghanistan-like maelstrom with much more deadly consequences. This is what deters a full-blown U.S. military intervention, with or without U.N. backing.

Anticipations of violence structure the daily life in the region. Armed troops are more visible in Beirut now than a year ago. Fear of car bombs has returned. The impact on the Lebanese economy is immediate, with the debt to GDP ratio at 135 per cent, the highest in the world, and the currency in danger of free fall. An interim government struggles to rule, as the two main political blocs (the March 8 and March 14 movements) cannot see eye to eye to settle the constitutional standoff. It is not helpful that talk of war has begun to overshadow any talk of peace. Cynicism rules the day. It is enough to make one drown oneself in the sound of dance music.