Syria conflict worries Beirut, reopens divisions (REUTERS) By Angus MacSwan BEIRUT, LEBANON 02/24/12 3:19am EST)
Reuters News Service
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(Reuters) - People in the Lebanese capital Beirut are watching
anxiously as the increasingly bloody conflict in neighboring 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 colored 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 U.S. 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 organization 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 laborer, 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
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
favorable 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 neighborhoods 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
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
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
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. (Editing by Alistair Lyon and Andrew Heavens) (©
Thomson Reuters 2012. 02/24/12)
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