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Lebanon worries Syria conflict could reopen wounds and divisions at home

Lebanon cautiously watches political developments in Syria's uprising, fearing a renewal of violence within its own borders due to the conflicting views of the local political actors on their neighbour's troubles

Reuters, Friday 24 Feb 2012
Anti-Syrian regime protesters burn a Russian flag, during a vigil sit-in against the Syrian regime and to show their solidarity with Syria people in Homs, in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012. (Photo: AP)
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People in the Lebanese capital Beirut are watching anxiously as the increasingly bloody conflict in neighbouring Syria unfolds, fearing it could spill over the border and bring a return of the violence that tore their own country apart for so long.

Beirut has undergone a renaissance since the days when Muslim and Christian factions, as well as Palestinian guerrillas, clashed over a Green Line and foreign interlopers imposed their will with troops, tanks and warplanes.

The bars and restaurants of Hamra and Gemmayzeh are buzzing every night with crowds of young professionals and students.

But memories of the car bombs, massacres and kidnappings are still fresh and opinions on Syria vary across Beirut's patchwork of religious communities and alliances, all coloured by people's own loyalties and experience of war.

In the poor St Michel district, home to Muslim refugees from the 1975-90 civil war, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad is a hero.

"He is at war with the United States and Israel. They support the opposition," said Ramha al-Hassan, a Sunni Muslim woman stopping to buy bread at a shop in a scruffy street of crumbling houses and overhanging electrical wires.

She said her brother and three of his children were killed in 1983 when the US battleship New Jersey, anchored off Beirut, shelled their home in the mountains. Her mother was killed by Israeli bombs.

Assad wins the approval of some for his support for the anti-Israeli Hezbollah movement, an important political, military and social player in Lebanon though deemed a terrorist organisation by the United States and Europe.

"Sure Assad is good," said Shi'ite shopkeeper Belal Assayed, 39. "The main reason for the problem is that Bashar is a supporter of Hezbollah. If he stops support for the resistance, the Americans and the Saudis will leave him alone."

Two of his nephews were killed by Israeli warplanes in the 2006 war in south Lebanon between Hezbollah and Israel, he said.

Assayed feared a spillover as the situation gets worse.

"People are divided, who is for, who is against. Nobody here likes war. Lebanon was destroyed by war."

Hussein Jaber, a 46-year-old Shi'ite labourer, held a similar view.

Speaking in his house in St. Michel while his mother served Turkish coffee and pineapple juice, he said: "The war will reflect on Lebanon. A war of religion, Shi'ite against Sunni. I'm definitely afraid for our country."

His friend Ali Rajeb, a 60-year-old cobbler, shared his admiration for Assad.

Asked about the killing of hundreds Syrian civilians by his security forces, he said: "They are killing terrorists. If a foreigner comes to your home to kill you, what would you do? Israel bombed Lebanon and nobody asked why."

The two men said they got their information from Hezbollah TV. They also watched the Gulf-based al Jazeera, whose coverage is not favourable to Assad, but said it was "full of lies".

Such views counter the Western picture of the Syria conflict. Assad has drawn international condemnation, including a United Nations resolution, for the ferocity of his crackdown on the near year-long uprising against his rule.

Several thousand people have been killed and the world has watched in horror as his forces bombard neighbourhoods of Homs to crush the opposition or fire on unarmed demonstrators.

Still, Lebanese opinions are forged by bitter memory.

In Hadi Nasrallah street in the Shi'ite southern suburbs, whole new apartment blocks have been built to replace those flattened by Israeli air strikes in 2006. Yellow Hezbollah flags fly from buildings and posters of slain Hezbollah leaders decorate the roads.

"People are divided pro-Assad and anti-Assad but here in this suburb, people support him because he supported us in the war against Israel," said teacher Fadia Khalil, speaking in her comfortably furnished apartment.

Hezbollah was formed in the 1980s to fight the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon, which lasted until 2000.

Khalil feared the history of factional fighting could repeat itself.

"In Tripoli, the war has already begun between Alawites and Sunnis. We are afraid of this all over Lebanon."

She was referring to clashes in the northern Lebanese town of Tripoli earlier this month pitting Assad supporters from his minority Alawite sect against Sunnis, whose co-religionists in Syria form most of the population and the base of the anti-Assad movement.

At least two people were killed as gunmen took cover at street corners and fired automatic rifle and rocket-propelled grenades in scenes reminiscent of Beirut's dark days.


There are still many scores to settle.

In the Christian suburb of Furn al-Shubak, no love is lost for Assad. The Syrian president's father Hafez intervened in the civil war with troops who stayed in Lebanon until 2005.

"The Syrian army destroyed our homes and killed our families here," said Tony Haddad, a 42-year bank employee. "Hafez al-Assad and Bashar al-Assad are like each other."

"For us here, we are not afraid of Hezbollah because we the Christians are strong, we can face it. When Syria is weak, Hezbollah is weak and Hezbollah cannot do anything with us," he said.

He blamed Syria for the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri by a car bomb in downtown Beirut in 2005. Hariri was the driving force behind the reconstruction of the city from the ruins of the civil war.

Haddad also angrily recalled the murder of President-elect Bashir Gemayel, of the Christian Phalangist party, killed by suspected Syrian agents in 1982.

"Definitely I'll be very happy when Assad falls because he has killed so many people. How can he stay in power?"

Joe Khuyra, 32, standing at the door of his Bravo Shoes and Bags store, took a different view.

"If the Syrian president falls, it would be a disaster for Lebanon. The group that was fighting Assad will transfer to Lebanon to fight Hezbollah here."

Still, said Khuyra, who lived through the civil war as a small boy, there were some advantages from the crisis. Syrian money was pouring into Beirut and so were Syrian workers, who could be hired cheaply.

Further complicating the mix is the fact that Syria's Christian minority mostly support the secular Assad government and fear for their own position if the revolution wins.

All this puts the Lebanese government in a delicate bind. Syria long dominated Lebanese politics and still wields influence through allied Muslim and Christian politicians.

Prime Minister Najib Mikati has tried to avoid taking sides in the conflict and Lebanon was one of the few countries not to vote for the U.N. resolution condemning Assad. Hezbollah, Syria's main Lebanese ally, has a place in the government.

The opposition Future Movement led by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri - son of the murdered Rafik - supports the uprising.

Veteran politician and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who was close to Syria in the past, has been a vocal critic of Assad, calling on him to relinquish power.

He has urged Russia and China, Syria's allies, to drop their support for him.

This week Jumblatt joined a demonstration in downtown Beirut in a show of solidarity with the uprising. Soldiers had to step in to prevent any trouble as a counter-demonstration in support of Assad took place nearby.

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