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Lebanon

Next Door To Syria, Fears In Beirut Of "Total War" Scenario

Though Russia's proposed diplomatic solution casts doubt over a U.S. military strike in Syria, Lebanese fear being caught in the middle if the fire spreads across the entire region.

Aftermath of a car bomb in Beirut on July 2013
Aftermath of a car bomb in Beirut on July 2013
Hélène Sallon

BEIRUT As night was falling, a police siren rang throughout the streets of Beirut’s rich neighborhood of Achrafieh. The police car opened the way to a convoy of cars in the middle of which, in a luxurious black Mercedes, a young just-married couple were waving to the few onlookers still striding along Independence Avenue that time of the day. Under heavy security surveillance, the Lebanese capital has gradually managed to return to near-normal life since President Barack Obama announced Aug. 30 he would ask the U.S. Congress to vote on strikes against the Syrian regime.

The Lebanese, glued to their televisions, welcomed the adjournment of strikes with surprise, thinking they would be imminent once UN experts finished their mission and left Syria. After a few days of astonishment, residents here eventually went back to their daily routine. Traffic jams reappeared all across town, and people rushed back to the cafés and bars. Beirut recovered a part of the sweet and casual life that makes its reputation in the whole region.

Weak link

But the respite could be short. Though Russia’s offer of a diplomatic solution casts doubt over potential U.S. strikes in Syria, this week nevertheless could be fraught with danger as the U.S. Congress debates possible intervention. Beirut is holding its breath. Many Lebanese fear a military operation would have inevitable consequences on the country. “Whatever happens in Syria, it affects us, and unfortunately, it’s always in a negative way,” says Kifah, an executive manager.

“We’re the weak link. If the strikes are limited to punishing only, we don’t care,” one 54-year-old Shiite worries. “But if they try to overthrow Bashar al-Assad, there will be a war with Israel, and the Lebanese will start killing each other. The Sunni will feel stronger against the Shia movement Hezbollah, an ally of the Syrian regime, and they will attack it.”

His friend Fadi is more worried about Syria and Lebanon falling into the hands of Jihadists. “In every war, we know how it starts but not how it ends. There is the risk of falling into total war.” These fears have been reinforced by threats of reprisals and of regional destabilization used by Damascus and its allies, the Hezbollah and Iran.

Obama’s decision to postpone intervention stirred up mixed feelings of relief and frustration. “Barack Obama is playing with our nerves,” says Nadine, a 30-year-old woman from Beirut. “He doesn’t realize the stress and the suffering he is causing for millions of people in Lebanon and Syria. We’re about to have a heart attack over here.”

Some still hope that the intervention will be abandoned and replaced by a political solution much like what Russian President Vladimir Putin has proposed. “There might be a miracle,” say Doran Farkour, a 21-year-old Christian. “Because if there is an intervention, it will be World War III.”

Arguments such as that, though, anger supporters of action in Syria. “How can we not react after Bashar al-Assad’s massacred his own people!” shouts Rania, a 31-year-old woman. “It doesn’t surprise me. We did let 100,000 Syrians die under the bombings.”

Many intervention supporters feel that limited strikes will not undermine Lebanon. “The intervention will have no direct effect on Lebanon,” says Ramez Hachahi, a 70-year-old Christian businessman. “The Hezbollah will be diminished, but it will keep control of the situation in Lebanon and will do nothing to destabilize the country. The other movements won’t dare to attack it either.”

Foreigners advised to leave

Obama’s delay has once again rallied opponents of strikes. They see in his hesitation the possibility of the American position changing. Over the weekend, dozens of Lebanese citizens and activists from Damascus-allied parties tried to demonstrate against the intervention outside Beirut’s American embassy. But it was in vain. Access to the hill that leads to the embassy had been blocked off by an armada of security forces. Given the threats, embassies and foreign interests were placed under heavy protection, and American and foreign citizens were advised to leave the Lebanese territory.

“No one wants to die like the 30 million people who were killed in Iraq or Afghanistan by American imperialism,” says Walid, a 28-year-old engineer who came to demonstrate. “The U.S. said they wanted to import democracy; they brought chaos. The fate of the Syrian people must be discussed during the Geneva II conference, not by encouraging chaos.”

As for Hezbollah, they think the Western forces will retreat the whole way. “They know they won’t have time to attack,” says Wissam, a 34-year-old sympathizer of the Party of God in Dahieh, in Beirut’s southern suburbs. “Maybe there will be a strike, but it will be short with immediate attacks against U.S. military bases. The Hezbollah is prepared to retaliate if Israel attacks in the south of Lebanon.”

The Shia party’s stronghold is now completely surrounded by roadblocks, each held by dozens of militiamen in civilian clothes, who control the identities and the vehicles of each person entering the premises.

The possibility of the U.S. and its allies — France in front — abandoning the idea of the military option will probably not change Lebanese security reflexes. The conflict that has been going on for two years in neighboring Syria has already hit Beirut and the rest of Lebanon with full force. The deadly bombings that struck the Roueiss neighborhood on Aug. 15, in the heart of the Hezbollah’s stronghold of Dahieh, in the south of the capital, and Sunni mosques in Tripoli, in the north of the country, on Aug. 23, spark fears of a new wave of car bombings.

“We’re scared of leaving the house,” says Marc Ghanem, a 22-year-old Christian student. “Even our parents worry a lot and don’t want us to leave the Christian zone. We don’t think of the long-term anymore.” His friend Doran can only imagine leaving the country. “There’s nothing left for us here: no state, no money, no jobs. The Syrian refugees either buy everything because they have money, of work for insignificant wages when they have nothing,” she says.

Slightly older citizens, who are used to political instability in Lebanon, are more resigned. “We go out less. Not because we are scared — we already went through this in 1976, the car bombings, the Lebanese factions,” says Sabah, a 47-year-old Shia banker. “But because it’s demoralizing. We know where all this can go. There will be more bombings here in Dahieh, despite all the security measures the Hezbollah set up. But there won’t be a civil war.”

The apartment of Wissam, the Hezbollah sympathizer, was entirely destroyed during the 2006 war with Israel, amd it was once again devastated by the Roueiss car bombing. But the man views the future with detachment. “When Israel bombed our neighborhood in 2006, we kept on smoking chichi with our friends on the balcony, and we kept on going with our daily lives despite the Israeli jets flying above our heads.”

The increasing polarization between Sunnis, mostly pro-rebellion, and Shia, mostly pro-Syrian regime, also feeds fears of a new fratricidal war. The memories of the Lebanese civil war, which divided the country between 1975 and 1990, are surfacing once more into people’s minds. The Christians, in minority and politically divided, fear being stuck between the two sides and targeted indiscriminately, just like their counterparts were in Iraq. The people are blaming Lebanese politicians, who have all taken sides on the Syrian conflict, as responsible for the Lebanese destabilization.

It’s a destabilization worsened by the country’s crumbling and the political forces’ inability to agree on the formation of a government since Prime Minister Tammam Salam was appointed in April. “Lebanese politicians are like pawns in a game of chess — foreign countries control them,” says Marc Ghanem, a young Christian.

Businessman Ramez Hachachi is for a military dictatorship in Lebanon. “The problem is that we don’t have a government. The country is in the hands of foreign powers, and we don’t have any real leader.”

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