Exiled in Beirut: Upper-Class Syrian Youth Examine Lost Illusions

Cafes in downtown Beirut
Cafes in downtown Beirut
Hélène Sallon

BEIRUT — Meeting for a drink, Lina, Ali and Johnny at first blush seem like normal young people enjoying a pleasant social gathering. But there is also heartbreak behind what has brought them so far from their homes in Damascus. Friends since childhood, these upper middle-class Syrians gather at one of their usual cafés lining rue Hamra in Beirut’s center. Among the hundreds of wealthy Syrian families taking temporary residence in the hotels and apartments in this commercial district, they await the end of the conflict in their home country.

Their luxury vehicles, which stand out because of their foreign license plates, have taken this shopping district by surprise. Lina was the last to arrive, coming with her family at the end of August. “When there were the first threats of strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, we panicked and gathered our affairs very quickly,” she says. “We left in the daytime. We were afraid of the consequences after such a strike, the jihadists. We’ve been staying here for a month, anticipating what will come after Sept. 9,” recalls the 26-year-old, stylishly dressed woman, referencing the date when the U.S. Congress began debating a possible intervention in Syria.

Ali and Johnny have already been here in Beirut for a year. Johnny decided to leave after his father was killed by a gunman who ambushed him on his way home from work. Ali soon followed. “The state of affairs was too threatening to work,” Ali says. “It had become dangerous. We were constantly receiving threatening phone calls.” They had witnessed many of their friends being kidnapped by the chabbiha, the pro-Assad militia that profits greatly from the war. “They kidnap the wealthy for their money,” Lina says. “Two of our friends were freed after three months of hell for 20 million Syrian pounds (120,000 euros).”

Johnny’s mother finally decided to come to Lebanon last week. Ali tries in vain to convince his parents to come. “They refuse to leave their house, the family business, their lives,” he laments. “But they endure threats every day, just because they aren’t taking part in the conflict.”

“The Lebanese are taking advantage”

For these young Syrians coming from a privileged background, their exile to Beirut has been eye-opening. Educated in the best schools in Syria and abroad, for the first time they’ve had to make due without their expensive lifestyles. “We have lost so much,” Ali complains. “Everything is expensive here. The rent is $1,500 (1,150 euros) a month for two units. The Lebanese are taking advantage of our situation while we try and survive on our budgets.”

In Lebanon, the influx of Syrian refugees, rich and poor, has been regarded with suspicion. Their presence causes the rent to climb and the salaries to decline, not to mention increased competition among businesses. In Beirut, they have re-created a Syrian bubble. “We have very few Lebanese friends,” Ali says. “The civil war has made them harsher and materialistic. They see us simply as occupiers.”

Their dream is to return to Syria, but it is unlikely that they have retained the same vision of the country they had left behind. “Lina isn’t aware, but we were part of the protests in Damascus,” says Ali, amused by the shocked reaction of his friend, who supports the regime. “I supported the popular uprising, but after the conflict became armed, I stopped,” adds Lina. “I am not supporting everything that the rebel groups do,” Ali responds. “I don’t blame the regime for this war but for the 14 years when they dictated the country and prevented its development.”

“In that case, we are all against the regime,” says Lina. “But in these last 10 years, the country developed, and we were making headway. Bashar al-Assad gave us solutions.”

“It was really very little, nothing changed,” Johnny counters, which raises Lina’s ire. “We could have waited until the 2014 elections,” she says. “In this I supported Bashar’s presence and bringing about free elections.”

Johnny suggests organizing an election under the protection of the United Nations, to which Ali responds, “That wouldn’t work. Bashar and his mafia think they own Syria. The best solution would be a military coup.”

As the hour went on, the three friends debated multiple scenarios. “We discuss, we shout at one another, but we stay friends,” Ali says. “Our relationship with Lina has not changed. We have plenty of friends who are pro-regime. Of course, if I were to say this in Damascus I would be killed.”

Intervention would be “useless”

The threat of military intervention evokes similar fears.“I supported an intervention, but it’s been about two years since this would have actually done any good,” Ali says. “At this moment, and intervention would be useless, the army is immune.You have strengthened the regime. Syrians die. What difference does it make if they die by bullets or chemicals?It’s just a matter of image.”

Johnny says that “the only ones who suffer” are the Syrians. “They lose all of their money when they flee the country and find themselves in the same situation.”

Lina points out that it would be more dangerous in Syria if the regime fell because there are more than 2,000 jihadist groups. “The goal of an intervention would be to divide the Middle East. This is no longer our war,” she says. Ali agrees. “An international conflict is playing out in our country, and we are just pawns. We blame the West and especially France, who is an old ally of Syria. They aren’t doing a thing for the Syrian people or their safety. They already made all of their promises to one side. This creates resentment.”

Then Johnny pipes up, and no one argues. “The solution won’t come from abroad, we don’t want your help anymore.”

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Paying tribute to the victims of the attack in Kongsberg

Terje Bendiksby/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA
Carl-Johan Karlsson

The bow-and-arrow murder of five people in the small Norwegian city of Kongsberg this week was particularly chilling for the primitive choice of weapon. And police are now saying the attack Wednesday night is likely to be labeled an act of terrorism.

Still, even though the suspect is a Danish-born convert to Islam, police are still determining the motive. Espen Andersen Bråthen, a 37-year-old Danish national, is previously known to the police, both for reports of radicalization, as well as erratic behavior unrelated to religion.

Indeed, it remains unclear whether religious beliefs were behind the killings. In an interview with Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, police attorney Ann Iren Svane Mathiassens said Bråthen has already confessed to the crimes, giving a detailed account of the events during a three-hour interrogation on Thursday, but motives are yet to be determined.

Investigated as terrorism 

Regardless, the murders are likely to be labeled an act of terror – mainly as the victims appear to have been randomly chosen, and were killed both in public places and inside their homes.

Mathiassens also said Bråthen will undergo a comprehensive forensic psychiatric examination, which is also a central aspect of the ongoing investigation, according to a police press conference on Friday afternoon. Bråthen will be held in custody for at least four weeks, two of which will be in isolation, and will according to a police spokesperson be moved to a psychiatric unit as soon as possible.

Witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

Police received reports last year concerning potential radicalization. In 2017, Bråthen published two videos on Youtube, one in English and one in Norwegian, announcing that he's now a Muslim and describing himself as a "messenger." The year prior, he made several visits to the city's only mosque, where he said he'd received a message from above that he wished to share with the world.

Previous criminal history 

In 2012, he was convicted of aggravated theft and drug offenses, and in May last year, a restraining order was issued after Bråthen entered his parents house with a revolver, threatening to kill his father.

The mosque's chairman Oussama Tlili remembers Bråthen's first visit well, as it's rare to meet Scandinavian converts. Still, he didn't believe there was any danger and saw no reason to notify the police. Tlili's impression was rather that the man was unwell mentally, and needed help.

According to a former neighbor, Bråthen often acted erratically. During the two years she lived in the house next to him — only 50 meters from the grocery store where the attacks began — the man several times barked at her like a dog, threw trash in the streets to then pick it up, and spouted racist comments to her friend. Several other witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

The man used a bow and arrow to carry the attack

Haykon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA

Police criticized

Norway, with one of the world's lowest crime rates, is still shaken from the attack — and also questioning what allowed the killer to hunt down and kill even after police were on the scene.

The first reports came around 6 p.m. on Wednesday that a man armed with bow and arrow was shooting inside a grocery store. Only minutes after, the police spotted the suspect; he fired several times against the patrol and then disappeared while reinforcements arrived.

The attack has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms

In the more than 30 minutes that followed before the arrest, four women and one man were killed by arrows and two other weapons — though police have yet to disclose the other arms, daily Aftenposten reports. The sleepy city's 27,000 inhabitants are left wondering how the man managed to evade a full 22 police patrols, and why reports of his radicalization weren't taken more seriously.

With five people killed and three more injured, Wednesday's killing spree is the worst attack in Norway since far-right extremist Anders Breivik massacred 77 people on the island of Utøya a decade ago.

Unarmed cops

As questions mount over the police response to the attack, with reports suggesting all five people died after law enforcement made first contact with the suspect, local police have said it's willing to submit the information needed to the Bureau of Investigation to start a probe into their conduct. Police confirmed they had fired warning shots in connection to the arrest which, under Norwegian law, often already provides a basis for an assessment.

Wednesday's bloodbath has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms — the small country being one of only 19 globally where law enforcement officers are typically unarmed, though may have access to guns and rifles in certain circumstances.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert and professor at the Swedish Defence University, noted that police in similar neighboring countries like Sweden and Denmark carry firearms. "I struggle to understand why Norwegian police are not armed all the time," Ranstorp told Norwegian daily VG. "The lesson from Utøya is that the police must react quickly and directly respond to a perpetrator during a life-threatening incident."

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