Beirut — For the past four years, Lebanon, known far and wide as the “Switzerland of the Middle East,” has sought to emulate that Swiss neutrality, though surrounded by conflict. However, recent bombings in Beirut have heightened concern among Lebanon’s citizens that their nation would at long last be pulled into the conflict in neighboring Syria. “Yes, war is coming,” says John, a Lebanese Christian in his sixties. “I will take my family and go to Egypt.” When asked whether Egypt is also dangerous for Christians, John replies, “It is also bad there, yes, but in Egypt it is possible to hide, in Alexandria and other places.”
It is a war that few in Lebanon want; a sense of inevitability nonetheless prevails. “One week they will bomb [the] Sunni. The next, they will bomb Hezbollah,” says Kamal, a Lebanese man in his sixties. “And so it will go.” Like many his age, Kamal survived the violence of Lebanon’s civil war (1975–90), in which he and his family were forced to flee their family home, unable to return until more than a decade later. Like many in Lebanon, he is sympathetic to Syria’s refugees. He also understands the destabilizing effect Syria’s war has brought to Lebanon.
East of the Anti-Lebanon mountain range, Syria has become the locus of a broader Sunni–Shiite conflict, in which predominantly Shiite Iran and the Sunni Gulf states wage war by proxy. Among many Lebanese there is frustration with Hezbollah for pulling Lebanon into that conflict — fear that Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria (in support of Assad) has brought al-Qaeda’s allies to Lebanon.
“Lebanon is surrounded by stronger neighbors who try to control it,” says a Lebanese professor. Lebanon is increasingly crucial for those neighbors of late. By all accounts, Hezbollah, a Shiite political-militant organization in Lebanon that has the backing of Iran, surpasses the Lebanese military in strength — and perhaps the Syrian military. In 2012, when Assad’s regime was on its heels, Hezbollah intervened with great effect. This was a blow to the Gulf-backed rebels. Now Saudi Arabia, perhaps seeking to check that power, has offered $3 billion in military aid to Lebanon, nearly double its annual military budget. In Beirut, one now sees billboards promoting the Saudi monarch’s largesse.
On the same Beirut streets, one sees vehicles with Syrian license plates, crammed with belongings. While a handful of Syrian refugees live in comfort in Beirut, many live in squalid apartments of several families, or even in their cars. In the Beqaa Valley, the tent cities of refugees stretch southward for nearly 100 kilometers. The Beqaa Valley, inhabited largely by Lebanese Shiites and now nearly 1 million Syrian refugees, remains peaceful for the moment. Syrian refugee camps are, however, breeding grounds for Sunni extremism.
The recent death of Majid al-Majid, a Saudi national and al-Qaeda leader who died in the custody of the Lebanese armed forces, has contributed to growing concerns over al-Qaeda’s presence in Lebanon. Majid, an ideological disciple of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was implementing Zarqawi’s vision of broadening the regional conflict to include Lebanon — a strategic move that long antedated Hezbollah’s intervention in support of the Assad regime in Syria.
“I fear something bad is coming to Lebanon,” says Georges, a Lebanese Christian from Beirut. Georges compares the influx of jihadists to Lebanon during the civil war. “It was like this in Lebanon. The extremists came. If they got their hands on a Christian, they would put cigarettes out on his eyelids. They would pluck out his fingernails.” Georges pauses before adding, “I don’t know how I survived it.”
“One people, two states,” Hafez Assad said of Lebanon and Syria in a speech in 1976, shortly after the civil war began. By 1990, after an agreement between the U.S. and Hafez Assad to join the coalition forces in expelling Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, Syria invaded the remaining Christian-holdout regions of Lebanon. By 2005, Hafez was dead and his son, Bashar, continued the oppressive occupation of Lebanon, much as he ruled his own country. But that year, following the assassination of Rafic Hariri, the Lebanese people, particularly the youth, rose up in spontaneous, peaceful revolt, demanding an end to the Syrian occupation — a precursor to the Arab Spring, and perhaps its least contrived and most successful instance.
Even before the Arab Spring, many experts believed that the Assad regime had lost legitimacy and that revolution was likely. It was widely discussed everywhere (except, apparently, America’s intelligence community), most markedly in Walid Phares’ 2010 book The Coming Revolution. After the regime employed ruthless tactics to suppress the initially peaceful, predominantly Sunni revolt that came with the Arab Spring, it was difficult to imagine what could restore the dictator’s legitimacy. Then al-Qaeda and its affiliates arrived in Syria from across Europe and Asia. The misery that the terror network has inflicted on defenseless Syrian civilians, Muslim and Christian, may be producing a backlash, making al-Qaeda’s affiliates, rather than the Assad regime, the focus of rebel operations.
“It was so different before the civil war,” says the Lebanese professor with a note of longing. Much as nostalgia lingers in the memories of old men here, so the specter of war haunts those who grew up during it. Meanwhile, Lebanon’s youth, sitting in Nejmeh Square, just blocks from where former Hariri aide and finance minister Mohammad Chatah was killed by a car bomb on December 27, smile and laugh about imminent war, as if not quite comprehending the consequences — or perhaps already resigned to them. Even as the rebuilding from the last war continues in downtown Beirut, the tiny nation hangs suspended between war and peace.
— Andrew Doran served on the executive secretariat of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO at the U.S. Department of State.