How The War In Syria Threatens Lebanon's Fragile Peace

Too closely tied to its larger neighbor, Lebanon can't help but worry about the consequences of the war spreading in Syria. The two countries have tight political links and share a porous border. Is Beirut set to be the next Arab Spring hot spot?

Syrian refugees in Al Qaa, Lebanon (FreedomHouse)
Syrian refugees in Al Qaa, Lebanon (FreedomHouse)
Gabriela Keller

BEIRUT -- On Sunday afternoon a sudden chorus of voices wakes the drowsy neighborhood of Mar Mikhael, Beirut's Christian district. Residents emerge onto the balconies of dilapidated Art Deco buildings. Some young men aim their mobile phones down at the scene to film it.

There are about 150, maybe 200 people gathered in the street – students, "creatives," young intellectuals. They're gathered in front of the yellow fence of the electric power company.

The demonstration is just one of a spreading number that have had Lebanese authorities fighting the threat of rebellion for a year. Ali Dirani is one of the demonstrators. He is convinced political change is necessary in Lebanon too, "as urgently as it was in Egypt and Tunisia, and is in Syria." He says "the Arab Spring gave us hope," but admits it's difficult to mobilize the Lebanese in a common cause. Dirani is one of the activists trying to get a real protest movement going in his country.

Lebanon's civil war may have ended more than 20 years ago, but the country was never able to heal the profound differences that split it apart. Activists like Ali Dirani are trying to bridge the political and religious divides by not staging demonstrations against the system itself but against specific consequences of poor administration. The daily power outages, for example.

Close ties with Damascus

Not far from the demonstrators, where Beirut's elegant boulevards stretch towards the sea, women with expensively streaked hair wearing $300 sunglasses sit on the terraces of the cafés. Yet everybody in Lebanon knows just how fragile the apparently unruffled façade of this Mediterranean metropolis is.

Even though Syria had to withdraw its occupying troops in 2005, the Assad regime still exerts enormous influence through its allies in Lebanon. The present government in Beirut is a pro-Syrian coalition dominated by Hezbollah. The concern that the war in Syria could rip open old wounds is deep-seated.

"Civil war in Syria means civil war in Lebanon," says Ali Hamdan, who heads the foreign policy bureau of the Amal Movement, a pro-Syria Shi'ite party. "There isn't a single person in Lebanon who isn't scared of what's going on in Syria right now." Hamdan is a thin, restless man. Suddenly he jumps up and cries out: "When Syria burns, what am I supposed to do here in Lebanon?"

He answers the question himself. Stay down and keep his distance. "The politics of dissociation," as it's known in official government parlance. What that means concretely is that Lebanon wants to stay out of it as much as possible, for example by not taking part in the sanctions against Syria.

The Amal party has traditionally maintained close ties with Damascus. But even Ali Hamdan makes sure not to come out too strongly in favor of the regime. He stresses that Syria needs democratic reforms – "more of them than President Assad has initiated so far."

Fear trumps hatred

Change of scene: It's late, and in a gallery of modern Arabic art a small group has gathered in a back room for Champagne and finger food. Conversation stops when a blonde woman enters. Slowly, leaning on a crutch, she crosses the room.

"The regime in Syria views Lebanon as an historical accident. It believes our country should be a part of Syria," says May Chidiac, a former star moderator on Lebanese TV. Chidiac paid a high price for having criticized the regime. She lost an arm and part of a leg in a bomb attack in the fall of 2005. But that hasn't stopped the journalist from fighting for her country's independence.

But she's doing it in some isolation: Chidiac is a member of the Christian Maronite community that traditionally has been one of Syria's bitterest enemies. And now the Christians are holding back. The minority's fear of chaos and violence is stronger than decades-worth of hatred. Chidiac can't understand it. "I am a Maronite, and maybe we need to be careful," she says, her voice growing louder as she throws up her hands. "But surely that can't mean that suddenly we're supposed to support the Assad regime!"

What would happen in Lebanon if the Syrian regime really were to fall? "It might be a catastrophe for us, but it could also be a blessing," she says.

Porous border

The only sure thing is that the country won't be able to seal itself off from the conflict. In Lebanon's second largest city, Tripoli, in the northern part of the country, shooting recently broke out between supporters and opponents of Assad.

The porous border between Lebanon and Syria encourages tensions. Aid supplies filter through to Syria; so do arms. Activists and rebels move back and forth along the smuggling routes. Some 12,000 Syrian refugees have also made it across into Lebanon even though they are far from safe here. The long arm of the Syrian secret services reaches deep into this neighboring country.

"It doesn't really matter much if I'm in Syria or in Lebanon," Shahin says. "I have to hide here too." The 30-year-old activist huddles on a stool in the packed bar. He had to flee Syria when the revolt first started because the secret service got on his trail. "Sure it's difficult not to be in Syria just now," he says. "On the other hand, I can do a lot of things here I wouldn't be able to do there."

Activists abroad function as an interface between the dissident strongholds and the outer world. Shahin spends hours a day looking at videos coming out of Syria, combines the material and sends it on to the media and human rights groups.

Syrians Omar and Ahmed didn't flee their native country. They came to Beirut to attend the renowned American University. They push their way through the crowded "Dictateur" bar, one of the city's hottest, and find a place in a back corner. They come from the Sunni upper class, Omar from Damascus, Ahmed from Homs. Observers believe that the economic elite is supporting the regime so as not to lose its privileges.

Omar and Ahmed shake their heads. "We're just waiting for the regime to – finally – fall," says Ahmed. But they can't openly join the protests, Omar says soberly: "Our families have known members of the regime for decades. We know exactly what kind of people they are, and what they're capable of."

They finish their cocktails and take their leave. It's late. The bars and restaurants are starting to turn off their lights; groups of young people emerge out onto the streets and walk past a wall on which someone has sprayed "Revolution Now." No one seems to notice.

Read the original article in German

Photo - FreedomHouse

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Feed The Future

COP26 Should Mark A Turning Point In Solving The Climate Crisis

Slow Food calls for an action plan to significantly reduce and improve the production and consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs by 2050.

A new dawn?

If, as the saying goes, we are what we eat, the same also goes for the animals that end up on our plate. How we feed our own food can have knock-on effects, not just for our own health but also for the planet. We are now aware of the meat and dairy industry's significant carbon footprint, responsible for more than a third of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

Large-scale cattle productions that favor pure profit over more sustainable practices also add to environmental woes through biodiversity loss, deforestation and pesticide use — with some of the world's richest countries contributing disproportionately: The five biggest meat and milk producers emit the same amount of greenhouse gases as the oil giant Exxon.

The good news is that we could meet — if we would — some of these challenges with an array of innovative solutions, as the fields of farming, breeding and nutrition look at ways to shift from centralized intensive agro industry toward a more localized, smaller-scale and more organic approach to production.

Cows fed corn and grain-based diets may grow larger and are ready to be processed at a younger age — but this requires significant energy, as well as land and water resources; in contrast, grass and hay-fed cows support a regenerative farming model in which grazing can contribute to restoring the health of soil through increased microbial diversity. Compared to highly processed GM crops, natural-grass diets with minimal cereals also lead to more nutrient-rich livestock, producing better quality meat, milk and cheese. Farmers have started focusing on breeding native animal species that are best adapted to local environmental contexts.

This new approach to agricultural practices is closely linked to the concept of agroecology, where farming works in tandem with the environment instead of exploiting it. If mowed a few times a year, for instance, natural meadows produce hay that is rich in grasses, legumes and flowers of the sunflower family, like daisies, dandelions, thistles and cornflowers. These biomes become reservoirs of biodiversity for our countryside, hosting countless species of vegetables, insects and birds, many of which are at risk of extinction. Until recently, these were common habitats in meadows that were not plugged or tilled and only required light fertilization. Today, however, they are becoming increasingly threatened: in the plains, where the terrain is used for monocultures like corn; or in hills and mountains, where fields are facing gradual abandonment.

It is worth noting that extensive agriculture, which requires smaller amounts of capital and labor in relation to the size of farmed land, can actually help curb climate change effects through carbon dioxide absorption. Researchers at the University of California, Davis determined that in their state, grasslands and rangelands have actually acted as more resilient carbon sinks than forests in recent years. Through a system of carbon uptake, these lands provide a form of natural compensation, going as far as canceling the farms' impact on the planet, rendering them carbon "creditors."

In the meantime, grasslands and pastures allow animals to live in accordance with their natural behavioral needs, spending most of the year outside being raised by bonafide farmers who care about animal welfare. A recent study by Nature found that allowing cows to graze out of doors has both psychological and physical health benefits, as they seem to enjoy the open space and ability to lie on the soft ground.

Some might worry about the economic losses that come with this slower and smaller business model, but there are also opportunities for creativity in diversifying activities, like agro-tourism and direct sales that can actually increase a farm's profit margin. This form of sustainable production goes hand-in-hand with the Slow Meat campaign, which encourages people to reduce their meat consumption while buying better quality, sustainable meat.

Others may assume that the only environmentally-conscious diet is entirely plant-based. That is indeed a valuable and viable option, but there are also thoughtful ways to consume meat in moderation — and more sustainably. It also should be noted that many fruits and vegetables have surprisingly large carbon footprints: The industrial-scale cultivation of avocados, for example, requires massive amounts of water and causes great hardship to farming communities in Latin America.

But forging a broad shift toward more "biodiversity-friendly" pastoralism requires action by both those producing and eating meat, and those with the legislative power to enact industry-wide change. It is urgent that policies be put into place to support a return to long-established agricultural practices that can sustainably feed future generations. Although no country in the world today has a defined strategy to decrease consumption while transforming production, governments are bound to play a key role in the green transition, present and future.

In Europe, Slow Food recommends that the Fit for 55 package include reducing emissions from agriculture activities by 65% (based on 2005 levels) by 2050. Agriculture-related land use emissions should also reach net-zero by 2040 and become a sink of -150 Mt CO2eq by 2050. But these targets can only be met if the EU farming sector adopts agroecological practices at a regional scale, and if consumers shift to more sustainable diets. If we are indeed what we eat, we should also care deeply about how the choices we make impact the planet that feeds us.

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