Lebanon shows resilience, despite the spillover from Syria's war

Syria's civil war has arrived in Lebanon. The question is only what the Lebanese make of it and the extent of violence that must pass before they acknowledge that they might have a crisis on their hands. Bradley Hope reports from Beirut
People gather outside the Al Taqwa mosque in the northern city of Tripoli after it was hit by twin car bombs.
People gather outside the Al Taqwa mosque in the northern city of Tripoli after it was hit by twin car bombs.

BEIRUT // Analysts and politicians in the past two years have often declared gravely that the civil war in Syria had finally arrived in Lebanon.

The pronouncements came fast and furiously when fighting erupted early last year in Tripoli, a city 70 kilometres north of Beirut. There, friction between Sunnis and Alawites, the Shiite-offshoot sect that includes the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, mirrors the full-fledged bloodletting between the two groups across the border.

It happened again when unidentified assailants fired rockets inside Lebanon in May last year, and when a top security official was assassinated five months later.

It happened yet again last month after the kidnapping of two Turkish Airlines pilots and massive car bomb attacks - one targeting a southern Beirut suburb and two more outside mosques in Tripoli. The bombings were the worst single instances of violence since the 1975-1990 civil war.

The fact of the matter is, of course, that Syria's civil war has arrived in Lebanon. The question is only what the Lebanese make of it and the extent of the threshold of violence that must be passed before they acknowledge that, well, we might have a crisis on our hands.

For the Lebanese, accustomed for years to having the name of their capital city viewed as synonymous with horrifying mayhem and human brutality, that threshold is unusually high. The spillover of the civil war from next door and being in a crisis are not the same thing for the people of this country.

It is one of the verities of life in Lebanon that this tiny country hugging the Mediterrean coast pays a geographical tax. Its mix of religious faiths, political persuasions and ancestries make it an alluring proxy battleground for those fighting wars elsewhere in the region.

"Lebanon, it seems, was almost designed to be the everlasting battleground for others' political, strategic and ideological conflicts, conflicts which sometimes escalate into their proxy wars," writes the journalist David Hirst in Beware of Small States, a history of Lebanon.

To the Lebanese, it becomes a question of attitude.

Rami Khouri, The Daily Star's editor-at-large, considers Lebanon's barely operating government and creaky infrastructure, groaning under the weight of a million Syrian refugees, and is amazed at the degree of stability Lebanon has been able to maintain.

"Resilience," he says - a word often ascribed to the Lebanese for their ability to shrug off bloodshed and continue living their lives amid frightening violence.

Consider the Baalbeck International Festival. The scenic village of Baalbeck is home to some of the region's best-preserved Roman ruins and is a long-time Shiite stronghold. It is also located in one of the country's new hot zones, where smugglers, Syrian rebels and Hizbollah vie for control. But instead of cancelling the festival because of heightened risks in the Bekaa Valley, the organisers of the region's oldest music festival simply moved the events to a 19th-century silk factory just east of Beirut.

"What's more interesting than the festival moving is that even as Lebanon has become more turbulent in the last 10 years, there has been an exponential increase in summer music festivals," Khouri said. "Nothing seems to faze the Lebanese. It's part of the incredible resilience and cultural dynamism of the country."

Not all Lebanese buy into the idea of "resilience".

Habib Battah, a journalist who runs the website BeirutReport.com, asks: "Are we resilient or are we sick?"

The fact that fireworks to celebrate weddings were set off in the skies above Beirut only hours after the car bombings in Tripoli on August 23 is, to him, proof of the latter. Rather than bolster the image of the partying, unfazed Lebanese, he sees his compatriots as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

"When was the last time that a generation grew up in a time of peace?," he said. "People are partying with fireworks 24 hours after one of the worst attacks in modern Lebanese history. There is a lot of denial, discrimination and purposeful ignoring of the situation."

With porous borders, under-equipped security forces and a proliferation of weapons, the fear is that Lebanon is hanging on a precipice.

The question is only when the overflow of the war in Syria becomes uncontrollable, not whether its consequences are lapping at the frontier, like a car stuck in the queue at a border crossing.

One answer to Lebanon's sturdiness is that its power-sharing agreement between Shia, Sunni and Christian political groups has temporarily turned fragility into strength. Each of the three sides know all too well that events can quickly get out of hand without extraordinary restraint.

Politicians go so far as to criticise Hizbollah for breaching the country's policy of disassociation in Syria - a code word for taking no sides - but they do not dare to confront the group. And Hizbollah may suspect groups in Lebanon of aiding attacks on its territory, but it also does not name them.

As time wears on, the question of resiliency or denial will be increasingly important. If large, violent attacks continue, both ideas will be put to the test as the escalating Syrian conflict embroils the region.


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Published: September 2, 2013 04:00 AM


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