My first article for VICE, thought I’d post it up!
Twelve years ago today, Hezbollah liberated the majority of Southern Lebanon from its Israeli occupiers. This event should have marked a new chapter of peace for the country, however things since 2000 have not been so simple.
Some things in Lebanon are as certain as death and taxes. The food will always be cheap and meaty, attitudes remain about 20 years behind the rest of the world and sectarian violence will rear its ugly head roughly every three years. Like a Soho back alley, no matter how many times it rains, you can’t wash away the smell of piss and blood that hangs heavy in the air.
Although Lebanon’s civil war has officially ended, it remains a deeply divided country. With various Sunni, Shi’ite, Christian and Druze factions vying for power in the region, it doesn’t take much for the young to start shooting each other in the streets like an ultraviolent version of The Wanderers but with worse breath and more facial hair.
This time, the trouble has come from outside the country, across the border in neighbouring Syria. Fighting between Bashar Assad’s regime forces and the Free Syrian Army rebel group has been escalating for over a year and now that conflict has finally started spilling over into Lebanon. The Syrian regime has been fucking with Lebanon for decades, using the country as a territorial pawn in its game to assert political dominance over the region.
Last week, anti-Assad cleric Sheikh Ahmed Abdul-Wahid and his bodyguard were gunned down by the Lebanese army at a military checkpoint in Northern Lebanon. This death has sent shockwaves through the region, with serious implications for those in charge of the army and the other ruling political factions.
Thousands gathered for Abdul-Wahid’s funeral, and the old Syrian flag, the one used before the Ba’ath party came to power and changed it, could be seen everywhere. There were no Lebanese flags in sight, proving just how intertwined the political feelings of people in these two countries are.
No Lebanese flags could be seen at Abdul-Wahid’s funeral
Abdul-Wahid is just the latest name in a long list of political assassinations that have taken place in Lebanon over the last few years, the most notable of which being Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Al Hariri and head of the Future Movement, who was killed in a car bomb in 2005.
Since Abdul-Wahid’s death, Lebanon has seen a tonne of running gun battles between pro- and anti-Assad factions, resulting in the deaths of several civilians. The prolonged street battles in the Beirut district of Tareek Al Jadideh were initiated by pro-Assad “Arab Current Party” leader Shaker al-Berjawi. After Berjawi’s supporters opened fire on peaceful anti-Assad demonstrators – resulting in the deaths of two men – gangs of anti-Assad Sunni youths rioted and the army had to be called in to evacuate Berjawi from the area.
What is clear is that the Western-backed, anti-Assad Future Movement is struggling to keep order amongst its supporters. Many of them are reacting violently to what they perceive to be Syrian threats to their independence. The risk of an all-out civil war seems to be rising again, and with the world’s attention diverted by Syria and the economic crisis, most of what is happening in Lebanon is falling on deaf ears.
Violent clashes have been taking place throughout neighbourhoods in Tripoli and Beirut.
To find out more, I spoke to Dr Khatoun Haidar, advisor to the Institute of Progressive Women and the “Light a Candle” campaign supporting Lebanese families affected by war. Dr Haidar is a women’s rights activist deeply engaged in grassroots initiatives throughout the Lebanese Civil War. She is one of Lebanon’s foremost authorities in the fields of community engagement, research and development and gender equality.
VICE: What are your views on the death of Sheikh Ahmed Abdul-Wahid?
Dr Haidar: The manner of his death is a real tragedy for the country. He was on his way to a rally commemorating the 2008 events in Beirut, when Hezbollah entered the city and burned down the offices of the Future TV station and terrorised citizens. The Sheikh was not a Salafist or a Jihadist, he was just a Muslim cleric who was very active in supporting the Syrian refugees that fled into Lebanon.
His shooting is the result of a long campaign by the Lebanese army to intimidate those who support the Syrian refugees. It would be very dangerous for Lebanon if the army kept operating in this way.
Who is responsible for the current outbreak of violence on the streets of Beirut and Tripoli?
I don’t view the clashes as happening between various factions. The clashes are the result of the pro-Assad factions provoking the Sunni population in Lebanon. The Sunnis have largely been kept in check by the moderate Future Movement despite years of provocation, and it is clear now that the situation is getting out of control. People are angry and are starting to look for a leadership that can defend them.
How much of the violence is down to Syrian involvement?
If one looks under the hood, it is very clear that Syria is looking for a diversion in Lebanon. Assad threatened in the media to generate havoc in the region and Europe if his regime crumbles. What has been keeping things in check till now is that the pro-Iranian factions are not supporting the Syrian effort. Hezbollah is worried that if a real sectarian war starts, they will not be able to stop the Sunni flow. Let us not forget that Sunnis are still a majority in Lebanon and that many Shia are starting to distance themselves from the Hezbollah position and the Syrian Spring that is becoming a horrible, bloody spring.
Where do the Shi’ite and Christian factions fit into this conflict?
The Shi’ite population is very worried about the future. They can feel the animosity that has been fuelled by the huffing and puffing of Hezbollah and its Christian ally (former Lebanese Army commander and political leader) Michel Aoun. Hezbollah is trying to keep away from the burning fire of Sunni discontent. They are less sure of the usefulness of the Syrian strategy in Lebanon, but they are bound to follow the Iranian position in the end. They cannot survive without Iranian support.
The Christian population is worried and divided. The pro-Syrian position that the Maronite Patriarch took has unsettled the population. In essence, the population is anti-Assad. But they are worried about the Islamic trend that the Arab Spring is taking. On the ground Aoun is losing support. His total commitment to Assad and his actions in Syria has cost him a lot. Yet some of his followers are convinced that his alliance with Hezbollah is saving them from Iran sweeping Christians out of Lebanon.
The conflict is in essence a political one rather than a religious one. This is what many in the West seem not to comprehend.
Can you see the situation getting worse? What are the potential outcomes?
The situation can and may get worse. Europe and the US have for too long pandered to the Syrian regime. Sadly, this made Assad feel strong and able to get his way by just threatening unrest in the region. Today, we are witnessing the same attitude. It is a total shame that the observers are observing real crimes against humanity, the slaughtering of children, whole families killed by the Assad regime and they are just doing nothing. In addition, we hear from everywhere talks about Al-Qaeda, the ‘bogey man’. This attitude will only strengthen the Jihadist terrorists in the Middle East. The moderate Islam that arose during the Arab Spring didattract the Arab populations. It is so sad that the stupidity and incompetence of the so-called international community will, with time, feed on resentment and the feeling of hopelessness, thus further feeding extremism.