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.”
Scars of the Lebanese civil war dot the country, but monumentally so in Beirut. During the Battle of the Hotels in the early years of the war, the Christian Phalangists took control of the Holiday Inn in West Beirut to use as a base against the Lebanese National Movement. Today, the Holiday Inn stands as a sentinel of the destruction. At its base sit a force of armoured carriers of the Lebanese army. The floors above are rattled with bullet holes and missile craters. The Holiday Inn would be an artefact in the Museum of Futile Wars. A taxi driver from Idlib, Syria, a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, weaves his old Renault past the Holiday Inn. He points frantically at the building and says, “Surya, Surya,” the Arabic for Syria. Previously he had described the devastation in his native city, from where he had fled two years ago. “We had to go,” he said. “Our building had become the frontline.”
The southern suburbs of Beirut, Dahieh, bristle with activity in preparation for more car bombs or even an aerial strike from Israel. Hezbollah, whose main Beirut base is in these neighbourhoods, is constantly on alert for some kind of attack. It is an organisation that is founded on the defence of this fragile country, whose sovereignty has been threatened since it came into existence as a modern state in 1943. Conversations in the area are often punctuated with fears about Israeli agents on the ground or Israeli drones flying overhead.
In south Lebanon, near the border with Israel, mothers have taken to warn 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 Hezbollah would strike Israel in retaliation for a US attack on Syria. But Hezbollah is a wily strategic actor, not always invested in the obvious reaction. Informed people in Beirut say that Hezbollah 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 Hezbollah’s strategic goals would be compromised.
Hezbollah’s fear of a civil war is replicated in Iraq, where the government of Nuri al-Maliki has said that he would refuse any US request to fly over his 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. In August, sectarian violence killed 804 people (and wounded 2000), the deadliest toll since 2006-07. On September 3, coordinated bomb blasts in 11 different neighbourhoods took 67 lives. These bombs were set in Shia areas – Husseiniyah, Talibiyah, Zafaraniyah – although Sunni areas were not spared – Sadiyah and Dora. The velocity of these attacks, almost one a day, makes it impossible for the Iraqi security services to investigate their provenance, and to help a cowering public understand what is happening to their country. The assailants are “gunmen” and “car bombs,” anonymous actors whose violence has paralyzed the country and sowed fear in the region.
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 in the region, its Jordanian branch boycotted the recent municipal polls. It is fear of the entry of radical Takfiri or Salafi groups who have made their nest in parts of Syria that threatens the Jordanian monarchy (a fear that the US State Department echoes). Such Salafi preachers have already made their debut in the Lebanese towns of Tripoli and Saida. A teacher from Beirut says that she had hoped that 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.”