Syria Street, Lebanon

Sentiment about Syria in Lebanon is mixed, as refugees flood in and survive thanks to goodwill.

Pro-Syrian rally in Lebanon
Many Lebanese are worried that an influx of Syrian refugees could cause instability [EPA]

London, United Kingdom – Reports of Syrian forces shooting across Syria’s borders with Lebanon and Turkey serve as a reminder that what happens in Syria has serious implications for surrounding states too. The situation in Turkey is, perhaps, well-known – as the Turkish government has made evident its growing displeasure at the spill-over. 

Because of such events, patience in Turkey with Bashar al-Assad’s regime is wearing thin, but in Lebanon, given its internal tension between supporters and opponents of the Assad regime, such a prospect is much less likely. The introduction of the Annan Plan, which appears to be making some fragile progress, only increases uncertainty about what the outcome (and who the winners) will likely be. In the end, however, it is unlikely that any of the regime’s regional and international critics will intervene militarily in order to halt any renewed bloodshed inside Syria itself.

The reality is that the Assad regime has benefited from considerable lee-way, unlike its counterparts in other frontiers of the “Arab Spring”. The instability in Syria is viewed as especially delicate, due to its susceptibility to regional contagion, in consequence of Syria’s geostrategic position as well as its political alliances. In short, most options for external powers to engage in ending the violence appear politically booby-trapped.

As I argued previously with George Joffe, in the worsening conflict in Syria, great power politics are mapping dangerously onto regional power struggles, which are, in turn, underpinned by sectarian rivalries. These dynamics work to mitigate widespread repulsion at the Syrian regime’s actions, because they simultaneously threaten the even-more morally dangerous prospect of a regional sectarian war.

Within the region, the conflict in Syria is viewed through complex political prisms which are altogether different from paradigms such as the “responsibility to protect“. Lebanon is one example of how concern about the mounting civilian death toll in Syria is necessarily tempered by competing exigencies, by local politics and, in some cases, by instincts for survival. 

Syria Street

“People are dead in the streets. All I can remember is that people are dead in the streets,” whispers Nadia, who recently arrived in the north of Lebanon from the Bab Amr district of Homs. Her eyes are trained on the squalid floor of her family’s windowless dwellings in the Bab Tebaneh neighbourhood of Tripoli. The rent – a notably inflated $200 for the month – was paid up front, and she has no illusions that she and her children will be evicted if they fail to find the cash for next month’s instalment. “We’re not receiving any aid whatsoever … Even if we get scraps of food, we don’t have the gas with which to cook it,” she says. 

“The only help we’re getting in Lebanon is from people’s goodwill,” says Alaa, a patisserie chef from Homs who depleted his savings to pay his family’s way into Lebanon, and now can’t find work in Tripoli. He describes how, in Lebanon as opposed to Turkey, Syrian refugees feel that they have been left by the state to fend for themselves. They depend on ad hoc donations from generous individuals and (mainly Islamist) charitable associations, and can never be sure of their next meal. 

Indeed, Bab Tebaneh is a predominantly Salafi neighbourhood which directly borders the Jabal Mohsen area, a pro-Syrian Alawite stronghold. Tripoli itself is ancestrally part of Greater Syria. The two communities have clashed since the Lebanese civil war, as attested by the banners dedicated to fallen martyrs on either side. Violence flared up as recently as February. Appropriately, the two neighbourhoods are separated only by “Syria Street”. Here, sectarian fissures map directly onto the regional-cum-domestic faultline concerning Syria.

Beyond Bab Tebaneh, the network which aims to provide support to the Syrian arrivals in Tripoli appears distinctively (Sunni) Islamist, as does the “Hospital, Orphanage and House of Martys” which treats wounded Syrian opposition fighters. 

‘Displaced Syrians’

Many of the estimated 20,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon are believed to have taken shelter in Wadi Khalid, a border region in which the reach of the Lebanese state has always been minimal. A number of Lebanese families have opened their homes. The UNHCR is active, compiling registers and offering basic services, but its activities remain largely under the radar. In fact, the Lebanese government does not recognise incoming Syrians as “refugees”, but rather as “displaced Syrians”. Lebanon is not a state party to the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, nor its 1967 protocol. 

Sensitivities about Lebanon’s new guests are deeply rooted in Lebanon’s political system as well its psyche. “The government is very much under Hezbollah’s authority so they don’t dare to help the refugees,” the former MP Nayla Mu’awwad said. “Some people think that if we let the refugees through we’ll get more and more coming, like the Palestinians once did, and then we’ll get instability.” 

Indeed, Lebanon is uneasy about the influx of Syrians for two related reasons. First, an uncomfortable precedent was set by the 400,000 Palestinian refugees who have lived for decades in camps around the country of roughly 4 million citizens. “The Lebanese are tired of refugees,” said Marwan Abou Fadel, the co-founder and vice president of the Lebanese Democratic Party, which currently has a minister in the government. 

“It is a very difficult issue here because of demographics.” 

The mostly Sunni Palestinian refugees were denied Lebanese citizenship and even basic rights – including, until recently, the right to work legally, based on fears of upsetting the confessional balance in Lebanon [PDF]. Still, the Palestinian presence in Lebanon is widely cited as a factor catalysing the civil war of 1975 to 1990, exposing, as it did, the fragility of the sectarian balance propping up the Lebanese order. The Palestine Liberation Organisation relocated to Beirut after its expulsion from Jordan in 1970, and Yasser Arafat’s creation of a state-within-a-state polarised Lebanese politics, dealt a body blow to the already emaciating authority of the Lebanese government, and bound up its hosts in the hydra-headed Arab-Israeli power struggle.

In the words of one British embassy official: “The issue of Syrian refugees is not seen as a humanitarian problem in Lebanon. It’s a confessional issue.” As such, to offer an organised, public and large-scale sanctuary for Syrian refugees, in the manner of the Turkish response, “would be too much for the Shia and the Christians”. 

A house of many mansions

Second, Lebanon’s unease is explained by the pro-Syrian orientation of the “March 8” bloc, which currently dominates the government. In 2005, Damascus was blamed for the assassination of the powerful former Prime Minister of Lebanon, Rafik Hariri, unleashing the “Cedar Revolution”. A stillborn ancestor of the Arab Spring, the mass protest movement expelled Syrian military forces after a 30-year presence, but it did not end Syrian influence, and led to the dominance of Hezbollah’s political star. Moreover, the Lebanese political process fell prey to the ossification of two rival camps: March 14, the pro-western, Sunni-dominated coalition which has opposed Syrian interference and sought reforms including the disarmament of sub-state groups such as Hezbollah; and March 8, the Shia-led bloc which currently controls the government and wants to keep hold of its relationships with Syria and Iran – as well as Hezbollah’s arsenal. 

Acknowledging that, on Syria, theirs is “a difficult position to take”, a senior Hezbollah official argued that the group had never lost sight of its priority, the compass of resistance to Israel. “We accept that some people want a better life, democracy, pluralism, for the emergency law to be lifted, freedom of expression,” he said. “Syrians have every right to demand change if they’re not happy with the regime, and we wouldn’t have a problem if this was [exclusively] between Syrians, but the problem is that Assad’s opponents, firstly, militarised their struggle and, secondly, are asking for western and Israeli intervention.”

When I suggest that, if Palestinian civilians have basic rights that ought to be protected, then so might Syrian civilians, that perhaps this idée fixe with Israel has led Hezbollah into ideological inconsistencies, the tone shifts from principles to realpolitik. “If the Gulf Arabs are so consistent, why don’t they address the Palestinian problem, or let the Bahraini Shia live in dignity? If they really do care about dignity then why don’t they do anything about people living like animals in Gaza?” he asks, referring to Saudi Arabia and Qatar’s strident criticism of the Assad regime, Iran’s major ally. 

Indeed, it is difficult to disaggregate principle from the realities of local and regional power struggles, new and old, across the Lebanese political spectrum. 

Mu’awwad, a March 14 stalwart, is visibly impassioned in her condemnation of the Assad regime’s crackdown, which she describes as “a slaughter, a scandal … It is the prototype of genocide”. She insists that “everyone knows my political position on Syria, but what we’re talking about are basic human rights, children’s rights, not politics”.

A few days after placing the flag of the Syrian opposition on his father’s grave, the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt employed a similar language of “massacre” and concluded that “too much blood has been spilled … a red line has been crossed”.

But others view this posturing with cynicism. “For politicians in Lebanon to be appalled by this [situation in Syria] is appalling to me,” said the Lebanese pollster and intellectual Jawad Adra. “So many of them were Syrian agents. And they won’t [give up their privileges], so how do they expect Bashar al-Assad to do it?” Similarly, Ghassan Saoud details in the Al-Akhbar newspaper how most of the key figures from March 14, who today denounce the regime in Damascus, owe their positions in Lebanon’s political class to the Syrian intelligence services.

The shadow of civil war

Syrian dominance was made possible by the civil war in Lebanon, at the beginning of which, incidentally, the Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad called for a ceasefire and for political reform. Because the Lebanese state was essentially partisan in the sectarian conflict, allied as it was to the Maronite president, the initial challenge laid down by the (mainly Muslim) leftists to the Christians’ monopoly on power quickly degenerated into inter-communal bloodshed. The 15-year conflict brought in a slew of regional and international actors, including Syria, Israel, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Libya and, due to the globalist logic of the Cold War, the Soviets and the US. Lebanon became a battle ground for inter-Arab and Arab-Israeli rivalries, which exploited – but also reinforced – sectarian and exclusivist identities. 

Refugees from the violence in Homs dismiss reports of similar sectarian tensions in Syria as regime propaganda. “If the government fell tomorrow … I am certain that the Syrian people would unite,” Nadia said. “We have no sectarian dimensions in Syria.” In her harrowing account of life under continuous siege in Homs, Buthaina recalled that a sympathetic Alawite soldier went and bought her children a loaf of bread, imploring the family not to tell anyone.

In another incident, as regime forces prepared to re-take the city, she said she was sheltering with 300 other women and children in a cellar where they overheard a conversation, through a grate. An Alawite army officer sent an order for the building to be bombed, whereupon a subordinate soldier fell to his knees, begging for the lives of the civilians to be spared, and threatening to shoot himself with his rifle. Other soldiers joined in the plea, and the commanding officer relented. The accents were all Alawite.

The positive picture of inter-communal relations provided by the refugees fleeing Homs is unsurprising, given that, firstly, they don’t want to harm prospects for international military intervention and, secondly, any rising social tensions pale dramatically in comparison with the unrelenting government crackdown they have endured. “All I can say is that we have nothing left … Bodies are knee-deep in the streets,” Nadia said. For refugees such as Nadia and her children, the situation could scarcely be any worse.

For Syria’s allies in Lebanon – who are mainly Christian or Shia – the view is necessarily different. The politics of their alliance with the Assad regime is intimately bound up with the fear that the instability which has victimised Nadia would mark only the beginning of a devastating regional war, were the Syrian government to collapse. 

Despite registering sympathy for the plight of Syrian civilians, Marwan Abou Fadel, a Greek Orthodox supporter of the March 8 alliance, is driven by his sense of realism. Fearing sectarian chaos throughout the region if the Assad regime collapses, he insists that “no one is going to help us [religious minorities], not the United States, not anyone”. The Hezbollah official similarly raised the spectre of a regional war, which may be especially traumatic for minority groups and could involve massacres in Lebanon and Palestine. “Another equation would form and engulf the whole region,” he said.

If the Sunni politicians of the March 14 alliance tend to espouse (predictably) militant anti-Assad views, then there is more nuance to be found among the wider Sunni population, who are similarly anxious about the aftermath of Assad’s departure. “There’s a reason why many Lebanese, including the westernised ones, are not out rallying for the downfall of Assad,” explained Adra. “They look at Iraq and Libya and say ‘no thank you’. If we’re getting the [confessional] problems we’re seeing in Egypt, imagine what would happen in Syria, where we would have destroyed the army.”

Indeed, the messages of the Arab Spring appear decidedly mixed, as different actors read the strategic environment in often conflicting ways. While Abou Fadel spoke at length about the ongoing persecution of Christians in Egypt, a Maronite taxi driver also invoked the Egyptian example to make the point that, despite the Christians’ fears, disaster didn’t strike.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a Christian Lebanese Army General likewise pointed to Egypt as a positive precedent for minority groups, post-revolution. And even if internecine conflict were to spark in Syria, he argued, Lebanon would not be affected “because nobody wants to see their country ruined for the sake of Syria. We’ve done that for thirty years”. 

However, because of the ongoing weakness of the Lebanese state, Lebanon’s patchwork social fabric and the sharp (often Syrian-sponsored) cleavages between and among the clans who have seized most of Lebanon’s political space, Lebanon appears uniquely vulnerable to what happens across its borders. After 30 years of direct political and military involvement in Lebanon, Syria isn’t just any neighbour: events there can be expected to have a determining influence. In fact, Lebanon’s continued fragility was perhaps itself formulated as policy many years ago in Damascus. 

Embedding instability

But will the conflict in Syria spread across its borders? With its increasingly defiant behaviour, the Assad regime does risk puncturing its main political argument, that it is the only bulwark against widespread regional bloodshed. Even Hezbollah’s position is subtly shifting, as it now criticises massacres on both sides. The danger for Damascus is that, from Beirut to Beijing, the actions of the Assad regime will be seen as permitting, rather than preventing, civil war. As unrest re-ignites in Bahrain, the Arab Spring has shown that a strategy of overwhelming force cannot extinguish political opposition, and only embeds instability. Just as the assassination of Hariri demonstrated the perils of overplaying one’s hand, the Lebanese civil war was a testament to the inevitably unpredictable fallout of inter-communal killing, across time as well as space.

For the opposition, any ceasefire which takes hold may present an opportunity to move towards a de-militarisation of their struggle, which some see as equally responsible for the threat of a regional sectarian war. If the regime does end its assault, laying down their arms and reaching out to minorities will bring the opposition more friends among nervous populations in neighbouring countries – and perhaps truer ones than eloquent politicians with axes to grind, or Arab states that are looking to enmesh them in a proxy war with Iran.

“We’ve known for forty years that the regime is criminal. This is nothing new,” said Abedallah, a journalist and former anti-regime activist from Homs, now living in Lebanon. “I’m the last person to defend the regime … but the revolution vanished after six months, as soon as it stopped being peaceful.” 

Dr Alia Brahimi is a Research Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and a Senior Research Associate at the University of Oxford. She is currently conducting research on the conflict in Syria for an ERC-funded programme on Security in Transition, based at the LSE. The programme examines the ‘security gap’ between existing security capabilities and the reality of everyday experiences of insecurity in the region.

Follow her on Twitter: @aliabrahimi