Up in a small village on Mount Lebanon, an elderly man, Antoine, recounts the horrors of the Lebanese civil war (1975-90). “I had a machine gun. I had an M16 and a Kalashnikov,” he said calmly. “It was a dirty war. We don’t want that again” Not far, across a ridge, lies Syria. He reflects on what that war might bring to his small, coastal country. “We will not return to our civil war,” Antoine says. “We experienced it already. We saw that it is fruitless. We will not return to it.”
The southern suburbs of Beirut, Dahieh, bristle with activity in preparation for more car bombs or even an aerial strike from Israel. Hizbollah, whose main Beirut base is in these neighbourhoods, is constantly on alert. Conversations in the area are often punctuated with fears about Israeli agents on the ground or drones flying overhead. In south Lebanon, near the border with Israel, mothers have taken to warning their children about Um Kamel, Mother of Kamel, a transliteration of the drone’s code, MK. If you don’t behave, they suggest, Um Kamel, like the Bogeyman, will come and get you. One rumour is that Hizbollah would strike Israel in retaliation for a U.S. attack on Syria. But Hizbollah is a wily strategic actor, not always invested in the obvious reaction. Informed people in Beirut say it is concerned about a slide into civil war, now between Hezbollah and the Takfiri groups that have begun to be more assertive in Lebanon. It would not like the Syrian war to spread into Lebanon. Such a war would embolden Israel, they say, and all of Hizbollah’s strategic goals would be compromised.
Hizbollah’s fear of a civil war is replicated in Iraq, where the government of Nouri al-Maliki has said that it would refuse any U.S. request to fly over Iraqi territory to attack Syria and that such a strike would create “social chaos” in Iraq. The civil war in Syria has already begun to open up social fissures in Iraq. During August, sectarian violence killed 804 people (and injured 2000), the deadliest toll since 2006-07. It is Iraq’s slide into a shadowy civil war, spurred on by the fissures in Syria, which frightens the people of Lebanon and Jordan. Emboldened by the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, its Jordanian branch boycotted the recent municipal polls. The Jordanian monarchy is fearful of the entry of radical Takfiri or Salafi groups who have made their nest in parts of Syria (a fear that the U.S. State Department echoes). Salafi preachers have already made their debut in the Lebanese towns of Tripoli and Saida. A teacher from Beirut says she had hoped the new generation born after the Civil War would be “pure.” They have turned out otherwise, marked deeply by the history that seeps through the pores of Mount Lebanon. “When anything happens in the world,” she says, “Lebanon explodes.”