Syria's War Comes to Beirut

Sunday's spasm of violence bodes ill for Lebanese stability. But the real problem is that there's nobody in charge.

BEIRUT — The streets of Beirut's working-class Sunni neighborhoods started filling up with all the signs of trouble by about 9 p.m. on Sunday night. Young men on scooters clustered together, barricading their neighborhoods with burning tires and overturned dumpsters. But even cynical observers of Lebanon's descent into chaos couldn't predict how bad it would get.

The youths' fury stemmed from a killing earlier in the day of two prominent Sunni religious figures from north Lebanon, who died in a hail of bullets at an army checkpoint. But how and why the two men -- strong supporters of the Syrian rebellion just over the border -- were killed quickly became moot in the eyes of the frustrated young men of Beirut. The Army, long a symbol of national unity in a country torn apart by religion, now appears to have become their enemy.

Tensions between Lebanon's political movements, which are divided between supporters and enemies of the Syrian regime, are nothing new. Just last week, the northern city of Tripoli witnessed clashes after a Lebanese security agency arrested a popular Islamist activist. But what happened on Sunday night went well beyond Lebanon's normal dysfunction.

It all began when a group of openly armed men attempted to close the office of the Arab Movement Party, a Sunni group allied with Hezbollah. The party members in the office were armed but badly outnumbered, and they confronted the group of furious young men on the street, forcing the Army to intervene. Usually, the presence of the Lebanese Army calms such incidents. But not this time.

I was on the corner of Beirut's Tareeq Jdeideh neighborhood when things turned bonkers. Attackers opened fire with multiple automatic weapons on a group of arguing men and soldiers. The soldiers ducked for cover along with the civilians: A young soldier and I fell behind a Volkswagen sedan for cover as scores of kids sprinted down the street away from the gunfire. Several were hit in the back as they fled.

It was impossible to see the source of the gunfire, although it was direct and very close. As rounds bashed into the car and ground around us, the young solider and I decided we were far too close to the front. Waiting for a lull in the firing, we both counted off "one, two, three" and he stood up to run back toward better cover.

The soldier stood up with his M-16 ready to spray covering fire for our retreat when he was promptly shot through the shoulder. He paused and stared down at me with a confused look on his face. "Run, man, run," I hissed at him, deciding that he was better off running wounded down the street to his mates, while I was now much more comfortable laying where I was for the time being.

He ran, and I could see him get into a Humvee, his wound serious but not life-threatening.

Bad as it was at the front of the street, where I appeared to be the only one without a weapon, the block we were trying to reach wasn't much safer. Armed kids on scooters were using the anarchy to try to assassinate soldiers from behind. One boy even drove up the street with a face mask on, pulled a pistol, and pumped a few rounds into the back of a soldier who was returning fire down the street in the other direction. I heard the pistol shots and saw the soldier fall, and my colleague witnessed the gunman casually drive away and hand his mask to one colleague and the gun to another, who zipped away into the night.

At least three people were killed and more than a dozen wounded in the mayhem. As tensions mount between Sunnis and the pro-Syrian neighborhoods of Tripoli, fears that the rage would spread to Beirut were realized in force Sunday night.

How did it all unravel so quickly? The May 20 violence was the culmination of a steady drumbeat of humiliation for Lebanon's Sunnis that stretches back for years. In May 2008, militiamen belonging to Hezbollah and its allies ended a long-simmering political crisis by invading Sunni neighborhoods of West Beirut. Then, as the Arab Spring unfolded across the Middle East, the main Sunni leader, Saad al-Hariri, was forced from the premiership by a Hezbollah-led coalition. And now, as a primarily Sunni rebellion rages against President Bashar al-Assad, Lebanon's Sunnis are once again outraged at their government's efforts to clamp down on their attempts to aid their co-religionists across the border.

Unusually, yesterday's violence didn't spread outside of traditional Sunni strongholds. Tareeq Jdeideh lies alongside the Shiite neighborhood of Chiya, and the fear was that the chaos would draw in gunmen from Hezbollah and its chief ally, Amal. But Sunday night seemed more about revenge toward the army for the earlier shootings, months of pent-up frustration from being saddled with a government perceived to be doing Syria's bidding, and an effort to cleanse Sunni neighborhoods of proxy parties aligned with the Syrians and Hezbollah.

Moreover, the experience of May 2008 has shown that the Sunnis are nowhere near capable of tangling with Hezbollah's well-trained and equipped fighters. By 11 p.m., I was in a Shiite neighborhood just a few hundred meters away, talking to sources who described a mobilization by Hezbollah and its allies for a potential conflict. While that skirmish never arrived, Hezbollah forces did mount an operation late at night to extract the beleaguered staff of the Arab Movement Party -- sending in several SUVs to make sure their allies got out.

Despite being one of Lebanon's largest communities, the Sunnis have never been able to match Hezbollah's street power -- another fact that has added immeasurably to their humiliation.

"The government kills us. Hezbollah can do anything they want without thinking. They can take the entire country over if they like," moaned one Sunni partisan on why they weren't pushing the fight toward their main rivals. "The Sunnis have nothing."

That's actually a pretty fair assessment. Lebanon's Sunnis don't hold real political power in Beirut today: Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a Sunni, is by all accounts a decent and honest man, but he is forced to walk a tightrope between his pro-Assad coalition partners, who are responsible for elevating him to the top seat, and his friends in the Syrian regime who have repeatedly threatened to invade parts of the north if the Lebanese Army does not get tough on smuggling to the rebels. Whether he's a colorless technocrat doing his best in a tough situation or a Hezbollah and Syrian stooge, he can hardly be seen as a representative of the Sunni street.

It's this complete lack of real political leadership that bodes ill for Lebanon. Since Hariri's departure last year, no Sunni political leader has gained the respect and national patronage machine -- critical to getting anything done in Lebanon -- to take his place.

Rafiq al-Hariri, Saad's father and the country's longtime prime minister, once held the community together through force of personality and generous financial backing from the Saudis. However, his death in 2005 -- allegedly at the hands of men affiliated with Hezbollah -- has left a hole his son hasn't been able to fill with anything beyond money. And it would appear the Saudis have withdrawn their backing for Saad as he waits out events abroad.

"The Shiites have [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah and [Amal leader Nabih] Berri to tell them when to fight and when to stop, and their people listen," one frustrated Beirut Sunni told me late in the evening as he checked the casualty reports on his phone. "The Sunnis? We have a poster of a dead man."

As Lebanon descends into lawlessness, it's hard to see what would assuage the anger of this proud community, which feels alienated from its own government and caught between a regional civil war.

It's only going to get worse: The government's response to the violence will almost certainly be the tightening of pro-Assad forces' control over the Army, police and intelligence services. There's already been a quiet movement within the ministries to stack the bureaucracy with those sympathetic to Hezbollah and its allies, and the arrests of Sunday night's partisans had already begun by Monday morning.

But as Lebanon drifts further into Syria's orbit, a large community of very angry people began rebelling Sunday night. And the path ahead is neither clear nor safe.



The Syrian Exodus

Today's gruesome car bomb attack in Damascus only adds to the worries of Syrians agonizing over whether to stay or flee.

Click here to see pictures of the May 10 bombings in Damascus. 

ZABADANI, Syria – Mahmoud, a gangly young man in his 20s, has just been let out of prison. His legs are stained by dark stripes of electric shock burns. It was the third time he had been locked up by President Bashar al-Assad's security services, and each time he gets taken in for protesting, the torture gets worse. It doesn't cow him, however -- the day he was let out, he went to a protest. Now, smiling and laughing, he busies himself by taking pictures of the torture marks.

Over a crackling Skype line, Mahmoud's mother talks to an activist in Lebanon, just a stone's throw away from this mountain town that was once a popular summer resort for Gulf tourists. "We are looking at places he could go to. He should leave Syria," says the activist.

"No," his defiant mother says. "No."

As the school year ends and the uprising grinds on into its 15th month, many middle- and upper-class Syrians are agonizing over whether to leave the country. Now, another atrocity will weigh on their minds: Two explosions ripped through the capital, Damascus, on the morning of May 10, killing at least 55 people near a military intelligence building and wounding 170 more. A Syrian filming the smoke plume from the first explosion caught the earth-shaking sound of the second blast on camera. The Syrian government blamed the attacks on "terrorists," while the Syrian National Council, an umbrella opposition group, blamed the regime for orchestrating the attacks. Syria's state news agency published gruesome images of those killed in the attacks.

This bloody escalation in the battle between Assad and his opponents -- and possibly others, such as the self-styled jihadi group Jabhat al-Nusra, which has claimed responsibility for some recent bombings -- seems certain to hasten the departure of both activists and regular Syrians. They will join a growing flood of their fellow compatriots: Since the uprising started in March 2011, over 54,000 Syrians have taken refuge in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey -- and that's just the official number of those who have registered with the United Nations' refugee agency. Roughly 300,000 more Syrians have been displaced from their homes and are still living within the country.

Back in Zabadani, a small city of roughly 40,000 people about 30 miles north of Damascus, not far from the Lebanese border, Mahmoud's mother worries. She's scared that the next time her son is taken by the security forces, he might not come out alive. But she doesn't want him to leave -- if all the men like him departed, she reasons, the revolution would falter.

"It will be like the 1980s again if everyone leaves," says Mahmoud's mother, referring to a black period in Syria's history when the regime of Hafez al-Assad battled a Muslim Brotherhood-led armed revolt through arrests, disappearances, and ultimately the flattening of Hama, Syria's fourth-largest city, in 1982. While there are no exact figures for how many Syrians departed in the 1980s, even the Syrian government estimates today that some 18 million Syrians live abroad. The large Syrian diaspora is not entirely a product of the violence, but it testifies to the drain of intellectuals, writers, artists, dissidents, and even businessmen.

Mahmoud sits in the corner of the room, checking Facebook and ignoring his mother's Skype conversation. Of course there is a part of him that wants to leave, he says. Before the uprising began, he had dreams: He boasts an encyclopedic knowledge of English music from the 1960s and had hoped to go to Britain -- not to study English, but to see the cities that gave birth to rock-and-roll, as well as the medieval castles.

But now that the Assad regime's brutal crackdown has claimed the lives of over 11,000 Syrians, Mahmoud -- and his compatriots in the protest movement -- have made the choice that the uprising is worth dying for. Seeing England now would be a betrayal, not a realization of a dream. For them, the new dream is seeing a free Syria.

For older Syrians and those less active on the streets, however, that reconciliation with death has not been made. Businessmen and many of the Damascus elite support the protesters financially, but are unwilling to risk speaking out in public. And as an attempted cease-fire plan brokered by U.N. and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan crumbles, they are no longer shielded from the worsening security situation. In today's Syria, trouble finds you: The central districts of Damascus are now riddled by gunfire at night, while checkpoints ring the capital on Friday, the traditional day of protest.

Not all the violence is political; some of it is for profit. Syrians speak of children from wealthy families who have been kidnapped for ransom money. Two children were recently kidnapped and held for $2 million, a fee that was eventually negotiated down to $400,000, says a local source. Theft, previously a rarity in Syria, is also on the rise.

"We hoped this would be over quickly, but it won't be," worries a 45-year-old father of two, a prosperous member of Syria's business elite. "I want to stay, but what does this do to my children? I don't let them out in the evening. They can't talk freely. Seeing horrible images has become normal to them."

For months, he has been agonizing over whether to leave the country, increasingly traveling across the border with Lebanon, where many families escape for the weekend. His wife wouldn't discuss leaving at first, but in the last month that changed as the realization dawned that bloody conflict had become the new normal in Syria. Now, like many other wealthy parents, he has enrolled his children in a school abroad for the upcoming school year.

For Alia, a young mother of three in a restless neighborhood of Damascus, it is economic necessity that is pushing her to pack up and leave. Syria's economy has been decimated by the last 15 months of unrest, as well as international sanctions applied by the United States and the European Union. Farming and industry have ground to a halt in many areas, the value of the Syrian pound has plummeted, and tourism -- a growing industry before the uprising that accounted for some 10 percent of the country's economy -- has all but disappeared. For a year, Alia's husband managed to get by without earning anything from his travel agency. But a fortnight ago, he packed his bags and set off to find them a home elsewhere in the region. "We hope to go to Saudi Arabia," she says, eyeing her ornate living room, filled with plastic flowers and books from her Islamic studies, as if for the last time. "This is home, but what can we do? What can we do?"

Meanwhile, Syrians who have left already are no less conflicted by their decision. It's not only the pain of missing home that vexes them, but the feeling of growing ever more disconnected from those on the ground. "I thought I could do more outside because seeing the Syrian National Council [whose leaders are mostly in exile] from inside was so depressing," says Fawaz Tello, a veteran dissident who left the country after coming under threat at the end of last year. "But sometimes I wish I hadn't left because being close to the revolution's activists is purer than being outside."

This sort of mass exodus is, of course, exactly what Syria's regime wants: If it can't kill all its opponents inside the country, at least it can force the rest to flee. Despite a recent regulation that young men under 42 couldn't travel without government permission -- a measure that was revoked 24 hours after it was applied -- the departures benefit the regime, even though they may be fatal for Syria itself.

The loss has simultaneously hollowed out the cultural, economic, and political heart of the country. And however the uprising plays out, this drain of expertise -- in tandem with economic sanctions that have pushed up prices and resulted in shortages of fuel and gas for cooking and heating -- could set Syria back years.

In Damascus, an artist sits in his house cradling a glass of wine. "I didn't think it would come to this," he says. "This beautiful revolution has changed. All my friends have left. The regime is happy to send the country back by 100 years, more. I can't live like this."