In more peaceful days, Damascus, the Syrian capital, was a forty-five-minute drive from the Lebanese border crossing of Masnaa. Now the proliferation of government checkpoints along the route has lengthened the journey—by how much depends on the vehicle’s passengers. Names can reflect sectarian identity and presumed political positions. Conscription-age men could be dodging compulsory military service. Women might be related to wanted male rebels, or “terrorists,” as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his supporters call them.
Masnaa, the primary official crossing between the two countries, is busy, although many Syrians have found illegal ways to steal across the border. They are flooding into Lebanon. That tiny, volatile sliver of a state, wedged between Syria and Israel, has a population of only four million. Every fourth person in Lebanon is now a Syrian. That figure, a measure of the reach of Syria’s war, would rise rapidly if American missiles hit Damascus.
Em Thaier, a grandmother from Aleppo, now lives with a dozen family members in a tent erected on private farmland in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, not far from the Syrian border. She calls herself and other refugees “the new Palestinians”—a common refrain among Syrians in Lebanon, displaced from homes they may not return to for a while, if at all. “Now I know what it’s like. You work a lifetime, I worked for more than twenty years to make a home. I lost it within hours. Do you think we can go back soon?” Other Syrians describe their country as “a new Lebanon,” or “a new Iraq”—the latest multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian unravelling state.
The Lebanese government, prior to its resignation five months ago, declared a policy of “disassociation” from events in Syria. It was pure fiction. Lebanon, since its creation as a modern state, in 1943, has never been disassociated from events in Syria, with a largely sectarian divide between those who support Assad—the Shiite parties of Hezbollah and Amal—and an anti-Assad coalition of Sunnis and Druze. (There are Christian factions aligned with both.) The two sides are providing men, money, and munitions to the opposing parties in Syria. Hezbollah, in particular, has firmly thrown its lot in with Assad’s regime, as Dexter Filkins and others have reported. After last week’s alleged chemical-weapons attack, anti-Assad media outlets had extensive coverage of the heart-wrenching videos of children gasping for breath. Those on the pro-Assad side either blamed the rebels, calling it all a conspiracy, or focussed only on the response: “The Western press is not allowed to talk about the reasons behind this sudden urge by Washington and its allies to intervene militarily in Syria, but they are very simple. Assad is winning,” wrote Ibrahim al-Amin, the editor-in-chief of the left-leaning newspaper Al Akhbar.
None of this makes the refugees’ return seem any more likely. Cars with Syrian plates already clog Beirut’s roads, and the drawn-out drawl of Syrian Arabic is common in malls and restaurants. Some famous Syrian restaurants, like Damascus’s Al-Farouk, have relocated to Beirut, mainly to its Hamra district. Meanwhile, aid workers are struggling to house the six hundred thousand or so Syrian refugees registered with the United Nations. Another hundred and ten thousand are awaiting registration.
Some of Syria’s other neighbors, like Turkey and Jordan, have established sprawling tent cities to soak up the influx. (See David Remnick’s report from Jordan’s Za’atari camp.) The Lebanese have not done so because, among other reasons, different domestic factions don’t like or trust each other much, and they’ve been down this road before.
In the early nineteen-seventies, before the start of Lebanon’s civil war, the country was polarized over the issue of Palestine—more specifically, over the influx of refugees and guerrilla groups expelled from Jordan during that country’s crackdown on the Black September group. Some Lebanese supported the Palestinians in their fight, and others didn’t—a split that catalyzed existing divisions. The fifteen years of fighting that followed made Beirut synonymous with chaos and car bombs.
Hezbollah has opposed the creation of refugee camps in part because it fears a situation akin to that of the nineteen-seventies, when Palestinian guerrilla groups established bases (not to be confused with refugee camps) and turned parts of southern Lebanon and the Bekaa into what came to be known as Fatahland, a lawless area from which they launched attacks against Israel. Hezbollah doesn’t want camps that could function as incubators of anti-Assad resistance. Other Lebanese are demanding them, given the desperate human need. In the meantime, ethnic scorn for Syrians is building, just as it did against the Palestinians.
Most of the Palestinian guerrilla bases are gone, although some persist. The refugees, however, who fled to Lebanon in several waves, are still here. Some four hundred thousand of them, languishing in a dozen squalid, overcrowded camps that are outside the purview of Lebanese security.
Syrians are the new bogeymen in some parts of Lebanon, blamed for rising crime and for taking menial jobs that most Lebanese are unwilling to take anyway. Even some longtime Syrian residents of Lebanon regard the newcomers uneasily, especially in the agricultural plains of the Bekaa Valley, where Syrian farmhands are everywhere. Abu Hady, a Syrian who has worked the Bekaa fields for twenty years, told me that he feared the day rates would soon be undercut by “the first years,” as he calls them.
On August 15th, a car bomb ripped through a Hezbollah stronghold in the southern suburbs of Beirut, killing twenty-four people. A previously unknown Syrian rebel group called the Battalions of Ayesha claimed responsibility. A week later, twin bombings tore through a Sunni mosque in the city of Tripoli, in northern Lebanon, which is largely sympathetic to Syrian rebels. At least forty-two people were killed, making it Lebanon’s worst postwar bombing.
The biggest fear these days is car bombs exploding in residential neighborhoods. Here in Beirut, trying to predict which neighborhoods might be hit has become a dark parlor game. Will it be like 2005, when a string of small bombs were planted in mainly Christian areas? Or large-scale explosions in Sunni and Shiite areas that result in double-digit deaths? Will night spots be hit? Restaurants? Which ones?
The country’s center is holding for now, in part because it is serving as a “back office” for the various parties in Syria, who are using its banks, its port, its airport, and its territory. Its border areas, however, are fraying. As in the seventies, some rebel groups have carved out safe havens that they also use as clandestine bases, and for logistical support. The relative stability of these areas serves their needs for now, but perhaps not for long.
The big question is what, if anything, Hezbollah might do if there’s a Western strike against Syria. The party hasn’t said. If Hezbollah is acting on its own accord, an Israel strike would seem unlikely. The group can ill afford to open another military front or to lose the dwindling support it has among some Lebanese; more important, its Shiite constituency in southern Lebanon would bear the brunt of any Israeli retaliation. That leaves the possibility that Hezbollah would strike Israel for the sake of Assad or Iran—but, if so, it would presumably have done so after the few Israeli strikes already undertaken inside Syria. Still, these are strange days, and little can be ruled out.
In the midst of all this, the Lebanese have been without a government since April (although they’re used to that, sometimes going years without one). Instead, they have a parliament that chose to extended its own mandate rather than hold elections that might further exacerbate divisions. But cranes still dot Beirut’s small skyline. The tourists are staying away, but most restaurants still require reservations. At the same time, cars are searched before they are permitted to enter supermarket parking lots. Any strike against Assad will reach Lebanon, one way or the other.
BY RANIA ABOUZEID
The New Yorker
Photo: Crater created by the bomb explosion in front of the the al al Salam Mosque in Tripoli,
Three pro Syrian regime Lebanese and 2 Syrian nationals were indicted in connection with the 2 explosions that rocked the city of Tripoli on August 23, 2013.
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