Jennifer Loewenstein Archive


 

From Beirut to Damascus

   by Charles Glass, The Nation

 

 

In the autumn of 1972, arriving in Lebanon as a graduate student at the

American University of Beirut, I discovered radical student politics.

The mainly Palestinian-led student movements were only a few years

behind Paris and New York, and strikes were common. When police raided

sit-ins, students sang "We Shall Overcome." Discussions went on all

night.

 

Caffeine, alcohol, tobacco and hashish stimulated self-criticism

sessions and persuaded many a young woman to hasten the revolution in

bed. One of the more urgent debates was whether the Palestinians should

choose a secular, democratic state in all of Palestine-Israel or

content themselves with a truncated Palestinian state in the West Bank

and Gaza Strip. It did not occur to anyone that the Palestinians'

pop-gun war on Israel's northern border was unlikely to compel the

Israeli government to offer either option. Still, the talking went on.

And on.

 

A friend took me to his aunt's house in one of the refugee camps for the

Arabs expelled from Palestine in 1948. The young man in the photograph

atop her television, beaming a kind of innocent hope, was her son. He

had died the month before in the Black September kidnapping of Israeli

athletes at the Olympic Games in Munich. My friend and I used to go to a

tailor's shop near the synagogue in Wadi Abou Jamil, Beirut's Jewish

Quarter. The tailor gave us Turkish coffee and joked with my friend

about Palestine. When my friend was 2 years old, in 1948, his mother had

carried him on her back from their village in Galilee over the border

into Lebanon. When they left, the Israelis bulldozed his village and

hundreds of others--lest the refugees have anything to return to. The

tailor, who was born in Lebanon, said he would never leave. The fact

that he could move to Israel anytime, while my friend could not even

visit, made him laugh. The two exchanged jocular ethnic abuse with an

ease unknown to me in California, where race could be a touchy issue.

Today, neither one lives in Lebanon.

 

Wadi Abou Jamil was a curving road of old, rickety apartment buildings

with shops and cafes on the ground floor. The lovely synagogue in those

days seemed as poorly attended as churches and mosques. At the eastern

edge of what would later be Muslim West Beirut, the Jewish Quarter

became vulnerable in the civil war that began in April 1975. No one

wanted to destroy it. On the contrary, Yasir Arafat's Palestine

Liberation Organization and the Christian Phalangists fought each other

to defend it--Arafat to prove his movement was not anti-Semitic and the

Phalange to ingratiate itself with Israel. The losers, as often

elsewhere in the world, were the Jews. Their abandoned houses gave

shelter after 1982 to Lebanese Shiite Muslims, who had been displaced by

Israeli bombardment and occupation.

 

Very old men, red tarbooshes tottering on their wizened heads, looked on

the young generation with skepticism. Coffeehouse politics,

nightclubs and relaxed sexual mores offended their honor. It had been

bad enough when their mothers renounced the veil fifty years earlier,

but daughters unfastening their bras were too much. The old politicians'

collaboration with imperialism, their tawdry compromises and their

betrayal of independence repelled the children. Youth's insistence on

change brought it all down--the tar-

booshes as much as the

coffeehouse debates, the revolutionary aspirations as well as the

Levantine compromises and mixing of peoples. The war it produced let

religion out of church and mosque, twisting a political battle into a

struggle between Jesus and Mohammed that could not be contained within

the borders of Lebanon. The freedom fighters on both sides destroyed the

fabric of the downtown gathering places of all communities--the ancient

souks, smoky restaurants, trading companies and cafes. People and ideas

were segregated by a north-south Green Line, crossed only by bullets and

artillery shells. Of course, the war among the Lebanese was also a

series of wars by proxy between Israel and Syria, Israel and the

Palestinians and Syria and the Palestinians.

 

Until the war Beirut was a jet-set city. For the visiting rich there

were yacht harbors, casinos, dancing girls, skiing and water-skiing amid

Mediterranean palms and cypresses. They did not see the Palestinian

refugee camps around the airport, the armed Palestinian commandos, the

Phalangist military parades or the slums expanding to accommodate

peasants driven from the south by Israeli bombs and mechanized

farming. The Palestinians had transplanted their revolution from Jordan

to Lebanon in 1971, but their conspiracies, rivalries and

jealousies--rather than their stated ideals of secularism and

democracy--took root in Lebanon's tribal sediment. Kamal Salibi,

Lebanon's historian laureate at the American University of Beirut, used

to tell me the Palestinians had made the mistake of becoming another

Lebanese tribe. The Palestinians' secular revolution died in Lebanon at

the hands of its incompetent leadership and Lebanon's bellicose

neighbors, Israel and Syria.

 

I had lived in Lebanon for six months before I made my first visit to

Syria. I hated it. It was everything Lebanon was not: controlled,

fearful, oppressive and conformist. Children wore military-

style

uniforms to school. Newspapers practiced Stalinesque obeisance to power.

Billboards exhorted the masses to struggle for unity, socialism and

Arabism. Visitors had to declare how much money they brought into

the country, how much they were taking out and at which state banks they

changed it into Syrian pounds. (Just about every Beirut shopkeeper dealt

in dollars, francs, deutsche marks, lira and rubles.) Where the Lebanese

cursed their leaders in loud voices, the Syrians whispered even the

mildest, most hesitant criticism. It took me several visits to see

behind the facade of party-military rule. In Syria there was a calm

self-assurance that Lebanon lacked. The Syrian--as stolid as the

Lebanese was flamboyant--knew who he was. Syrian Christians in

particular had none of the identity crises that afflicted their

co-religionists in Lebanon. More Christians and Jews lived in "Muslim"

Syria than in "Christian" Lebanon. Although Syria was what the Lebanese

Druse leader Kamal  Jumblatt called a prison-state, the prisoners were

generous, patient and interesting. And their history imposed upon them a

duty to act, in Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser's words, as "the beating

heart" of Arab nationalism.

 

Damascus was the capital in the seventh century of the Arabs' first

empire--the Umayyad--and for a few months in the twentieth, of the

independent state that Britain had promised the Arabs for their help in

expelling the Ottoman Turks. Many Syrians--and not a few Lebanese and

Jordanians--regard their country as a small part of a larger Arab

homeland that includes Lebanon, Jordan and Israel--Suriya al-Kubra,

Greater Syria. This ideal is not easily abandoned, any more than the

Damascene obligation to prevent Lebanese and Palestinians from

compromising with an Israel that permanently divides the Arabs from one

another. The Damascenes will remind the visitor that the Crusaders, like

the ancient Israelite kingdom, never conquered Damascus. This is an

important part of the Syrian legacy, and it is not easily dismissed for

modern political convenience.

 

Barely three years before my first trip to Damascus, Hafez al-Assad, the

air force commander, had seized power in a bloodless putsch against the

self-destructive deputy secretary general and fellow Baathist

Salah Jadid. Assad in his early years as dictator must have felt

vulnerable. Military dictators had come and gone as frequently as city

buses since the first, CIA-backed, coup dissolved Syria's last fairly

elected parliament in 1949. To add to the usual problems of retaining

the throne, Assad came from a religious minority, an

obscurantist offshoot of Shiite Islam, the Alawis, who had

come to dominate the military under the French Mandate. The Sunni

Muslim elite in Damascus did not welcome him, although they remained

quiet about the fact. The only Sunnis he made room for in his regime,

notably Defense Minister Moustafa Tlas and Vice-President Abdel

Halim Khaddam, were neither Damascenes nor from prominent families.

Internal resistance came from the armed assassins of the Sunni

fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, who disliked Assad's sect as much as

his party's secularism.

 

Lebanon--relatively free, tribal and allied to the West--was a potential

base for subverting the Syrian regime, as Assad knew well. Syrian exiles

in Lebanon had forged the Arab Socialist Baath Party in 1952 and took

power in Damascus eleven years later. While I was making my first

explorations of Syria, Assad and Egypt's president, Anwar Sadat, were

planning a war to dislodge Israel from the Syrian and Egyptian

territories it had seized in June 1967. That war took place in October

1973 and exchanged a few thousand lives for a few miles of land. It also

made Assad--the near "liberator" of the Golan Heights--more secure and

a

player on the world stage in negotiations with then-US Secretary of

State Henry Kissinger. Assad's prestige made him dangerous, however, to

Lebanon, which had grown used to weak Syrian leaders whose diktats it

could ignore.

 

Throughout the 1970s, skirmishes in Lebanon between Palestinian

commandos and the Israeli army claimed more non-combatants than soldiers

on both sides. They also weakened an already feeble Lebanese state that

could not protect its citizens from either Israel or the PLO. Assad, who

did not let the Palestinians breathe in Syria, sent them weapons and

encouraged them in Lebanon--as long as they did not threaten his regime.

The Palestinians hijacked airplanes, and the Israelis bombed refugee

hovels and villages. Any responsible imperial power would have put a

stop to it, but neither the Soviet Union nor the United States had the

maturity to manage a local conflict in which both envisaged benefits to

themselves. It was an ugly time, and the vicious civil war that erupted

in April 1975 between Lebanon's Christian militias and the loose

alliance of Palestinians, Lebanese leftists and Muslims made things

worse.

 

In 1976 Assad met the prospect of a Palestinian leftist takeover of

Lebanon with force. His regime's pro-Palestinian and socialist rhetoric

could not mask the fact that its interests lay with maintaining balance

in Beirut. A Palestinian-Lebanese leftist victory in Lebanon would have

meant trouble for Syria, where the Sunni Muslim majority might have

demanded power similar to that won by Muslims--both Palestinian and

Lebanese--in Lebanon. Hafez al-Assad feared another probable

consequence--an Israeli invasion of Lebanon to save the Christian

establishment. Thus, he made his pact with the extreme Christian

leadership. His army entered Lebanon under a banner of Palestinian

liberation, fighting Palestinians on the way in. Syrian support for the

Christians in the summer of 1976 enabled the Christian militias to

destroy the last Palestinian refugee camp, Tal Zaatar, on the Christian

side of Beirut. The massacre of a few thousand Palestinian civilians at

Tal Zaatar may be laid at the feet of the Syrians, just as the Israelis

would be held responsible for helping the same Christians to massacre

civilians in two other Beirut Palestinian camps--Sabra and

Shatila--under Israeli occupation in 1982. The United States and Israel

accepted the Syrian intervention to suppress the PLO, with the proviso

that no Syrian troops would tread south of a "red line" well north of

Israel's border. In that ungoverned zone, war continued between the

Palestinians and Israelis until 1982.

 

Meanwhile, the only Lebanese community to remain aloof from the civil

war--the Shiites--was coming under other influences. Partly due to the

interests of the large landowners who were their communal leaders,

Shiites were the poorest community in the country. The Shiite clergy had

been proselytizing among the displaced petite bourgeoisie and the

peasantry since the 1960s, when their ideas were less fashionable than

either communism or Arab nationalism. As Sheikh Naim Qassem, deputy

leader of Hezbollah, writes in his history of the movement, "Initiated

by a number of Islamic clerics just back from the holy schools of

religion of Najaf in Iraq, the clerical teachings, speeches and cultural

dialogue that ensued prompted many concerns and queries about Islam's

proposed role in life." University students engaged in this process were

"rare," and women's presence "was scarce and underwhelming."

Undereducated, underemployed young men could not afford universities or

nightclubs. The mosque was free, and within its confines they found

brotherhood. Then came the Iranian revolution of 1979, which gave the

Shiites hope, and the Israeli invasion of 1982, which gave them a cause.

Thus Hezbollah, the Shiite Party of God, went from what Naim Qassem

calls "humble, embryonic beginnings" to "actual victory, achieved

on May

25, 2000, when Israeli troops were forced to withdraw as a result of

Hizballah operations--an unprecedented achievement in fifty years of

struggle with the Israeli enemy." Damascus, which had made common cause

with the anti-secularists of Tehran against rival Baathists in Baghdad,

found in Hezbollah a useful proxy to attack Israel without incurring

Israeli reprisals in Syria itself.

 

Three clerics dominated the Shiite movement: Imam Musa al-Sadr, Sheik

Mohammed Mehdi Shamseddine and Sheik  Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah. Of the

three, Sadr was the most charismatic. A man of Lebanese origin who had

grown up in Iran and spoke Arabic with a Persian accent, Sadr founded

both the Shiite official clerical body, the Higher Islamic Shiite

Council, and the largest Shiite grouping, the Movement of the

Disinherited. When the Israelis bombed their training camp in the Bekaa

Valley in 1974, Sadr announced the creation of Amal, the armed wing of

his movement, some of whose members received training from Arafat's

Fatah. Three years into the civil war, in August 1978, Sadr vanished

while visiting Libya--a murder or kidnapping for which Lebanon's Shiites

have not forgiven Muammar el-Qaddafi. Shamseddine became head of the

Higher Islamic Shiite Council, making him official head of the community

and equal to the Sunni Mufti and the Maronite Patriarch. Fadlallah would

later be accused of being the "spiritual leader" of Hezbollah, although

he neither joined nor led it. His notoriety made him the target of a

failed assassination attempt in March 1985 by a CIA-trained Lebanese

unit, when a car bomb intended for him killed more than eighty civilian

bystanders. By then the ten-year civil war had attracted armies from

Syria, Israel, the United States, France, Britain, Italy and, as

peacekeepers, at least twenty other countries.

 

The war of attrition between Arafat and Israel escalated in the late

1970s after Egypt's peace overtures left it a free hand to interfere in

Lebanon. Israel invaded twice--in 1978 and more decisively in 1982, on

the pretext that invasion was a reprisal for the bungled assassination

attempt on its ambassador in London, even though the perpetrators were

linked to Abu Nidal, Arafat's sworn enemy. Arafat for his part had

observed an effective cease-fire with Israel between 1979 and 1982.

Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon's long-planned Operation Peace in

Galilee expelled Arafat and forced the Lebanese parliament to elect

Israel's Christian Maronite favorite, Bashir Gemayel, president. The

Israeli order in Lebanon was born. Despite more than 16,000 Lebanese and

Palestinian deaths in the invasion, the new Lebanon suited the

Phalangists and their Israeli benefactors. But they ignored a

conference in Tehran of Lebanon's Shiite ulama (religious scholars)

in August 1982 under the guidance of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Ahmad

Nizar Hamzeh, whose excellent In the Path of Hizbullah is as critical of

the movement as Sheikh Naim Qassem's Hizbullah: The Story From Within is

partisan, writes, "During the meeting, Khomeini urged the 'ulama' to go

back home and mobilize the people to fight the Israeli occupation and to

turn the mosques into bases for their jihad activities." That is exactly

what they did, and they won.

 

Suicide bombings, what Qassem calls "martyrdom operations," began on

November 11, 1982, in south Lebanon. "The enemy," Qassem writes, "could

not tolerate many attacks like that from the pioneer of all martyr

attacks, Sheikh Ahmad Kassir, who drove...a car strapped with explosives

right into the headquarters of the Israeli commander in the city of

Tyre, wounding and killing 141 Israeli officers, a further ten declared

missing." The significance of the bombing eluded both the Israelis and

the United States. Israeli officers were telling me and other

journalists in south Lebanon a few weeks later that the Shiite

population still supported Israel's presence out of gratitude for

ridding them of the PLO. Because the main Shiite militia, Amal, had yet

to resist the Israeli occupation, Israel found it easier to deceive

itself. Amal's inconsistent approach to the Israelis left the field open

to the clerics who would found Hezbollah. Missing the signal of the Tyre

attack, the Americans took insufficient precautions against suicide

attacks at their embassy in April 1983 and the US Marine barracks the

following October.

 

The Marines had overseen the PLO evacuation from Beirut in August 1982

at Israel's request. As in Iraq later, the mission was only beginning.

The Marines were forced to return to Lebanon, because Israel broke its

promise not to invade West Beirut and presided over the Sabra and

Shatila massacres by the same Christian militiamen who had massacred

other Palestinian refugees at Tal Zaatar. The Reagan Administration

compounded its error by compelling Lebanon to sign an unpopular accord

with Israel on May 17, 1983, and allowing President Amin Gemayel to

arrest and torture his Muslim and Druse opponents. Syria foiled the

United States and Gemayel by creating Lebanon's National Salvation Front

out of every group disenchanted with rightist Maronite rule, Israeli

occupation and American tutelage. They rallied around opposition to the

May 17 "surrender" to Israel that Secretary of State George Shultz had

brokered. Hezbollah drove the United States out with a suicide bombing

that killed 241 American servicemen on October 23, 1983, and other

attacks. For the next seventeen years it launched operations against

Israel's troops in Lebanon. Israel gave up most of its Lebanese

territory in 1985 and retreated from the rest in May 2000, save a

thirty-square-mile patch called the Shabaa Farms. In the meantime, not

only Hezbollah but its Shiite rivals of the more secular Amal--as well

as many leftist movements--adopted "martyrdom operations" against the

Israeli occupier. It did not take long for the Palestinians, seeing the

success of these operations, to imitate them in the occupied

territories--the West Bank and Gaza Strip--as well as in Israel itself.

Behind the scenes, Syria and Iran could claim credit for Israel's first

military defeat. Hafez al-Assad, whose air force had been destroyed and

whose army had been driven out of Beirut by Israel in 1982, lived to see

his army return to Beirut and his Israeli adversary humiliated. Then, on

June 10, 2000, Assad died--leaving his son, Bashar, a precarious

inheritance.

 

The Lebanese civil war ended when the United States--as quid pro quo for

Syrian participation in the war to dislodge Iraq from Kuwait in

1991--permitted the Syrian army to occupy the Christian areas in

Lebanon. Syria enforced order, and it influenced most political

decisions. It took Lebanese army and security officers for training at

its military academy in Homs, and its rule allowed the Lebanese to

rebuild the country they had so assiduously destroyed for fifteen years.

Some of Syria's senior officers enriched themselves in collaboration

with Lebanese politicians. Lebanon became Syria's colony, where those

who cooperated fared better than those who defended their country's

independence. This year it was Syria's turn to be humiliated.

Pushing its rule in Lebanon too far, its agents assassinated former

Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri on February 14 in Beirut. In 2004

the UN, inspired by the United States and France, had passed

Security Council Resolution 1559 calling on Syria to leave Lebanon.

Bashar al-Assad had no choice but to acquiesce. His regime had already

become a target of American and Israeli diatribes and subversion.

 

The Assad regime's fear of destabilization by the United States and

Israel explains in part its ineptitude in Lebanon, where the Hariri

assassination dramatically backfired. Rather than intimidate the

Lebanese, Hariri's murder galvanized a majority of the population to

pour into the streets to insist on the evacuation of Syria's army. The

crowds also demanded, in chants and on billboards, al-haqiqa--the

truth--about the Hariri murder. An international investigation, ordered

in June by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to find some part of the

truth, presented its findings to the Lebanese government on October 19

and to the UN the next day. Detlev Mehlis, the Berlin state prosecutor,

amassed thousands of documents, telephone intercepts, interrogation

transcripts and forensic evidence to produce a damning indictment of the

Lebanese security service chiefs and their Syrian masters. Armed with

Mehlis's evidence, Lebanese police have arrested former senior

intelligence and security chiefs, as well as the leaders of an obscure

Syrian-supported religious group, Al-Ahbash. Much of the evidence is

circumstantial, and the testimony of one key witness, a convicted

fraudster named Zuhir Ibn Mohamed Said Saddik, has been questioned. But

the case against Syrian officials is convincing and, as the report

itself states, requires further investigation. The UN has extended

Mehlis's mandate to December 15 to follow lines of inquiry that appear

to point directly at the regime in Damascus. "Given the infiltration of

Lebanese institutions and society by the Syrian and Lebanese

intelligence services working in tandem," the Mehlis report notes, "it

would be difficult to envisage a scenario whereby such a complex

assassination plot could have been carried out without their knowledge."

 

The evidence actually goes further than that conclusion: Some witnesses

spoke not of Syrian "knowledge" of the assassination but of Syrian

direction of it. Lebanese allies of Hariri told Mehlis of the threats

that senior Syrians, including their intelligence chief in Lebanon,

General Rustum Ghazali, made to Hariri--threats denied by the Syrians

themselves. There was regular telephone contact, according to the

records, between those involved in the dirty work of watching Hariri and

dispatching the white Mitsubishi van (stolen the previous October in

Japan) with 1,000 kilograms of TNT, and senior Lebanese officers who

were themselves in regular contact with their Syrian counterparts. The

Syrians, on the testimony of some witnesses, set up a Lee Harvey

Oswald-type fall guy in the form of a Palestinian refugee named Ahmad

Abu Adass, who was forced to make a videotaped claim that he was the

suicide bomber who killed the infidel Hariri. The trail leads to the

office of the pro-Syrian Lebanese president, Emile Lahoud, whose cell

phone received a call from one of the suspects only minutes before the

bomb that killed Hariri exploded. The imbroglio that led to Hariri's

death began with Syria's insistence that Lahoud remain president after

his term of office expired last year--which involved a dubious amendment

to the Constitution. The acrimony between Lahoud and Hariri altered the

political divide from Christian versus Muslim to pro- versus anti-Syrian

factions--with Muslims and Christians on both sides. Syria felt it

needed Lahoud in place to maintain its control of Lebanon, something

Bashar al-Assad told Hariri at their final meeting in Damascus in August

2004.

 

A thorough investigation should probe the other murders and bombings in

Lebanon: not only the attempt on the life of anti-Syrian Druse MP Marwan

Hamadeh in October 2004 and the post-Hariri murders of former Communist

Party chief George Hawi and journalist Samir Kassir but also the

assassination of Druse and leftist chief Kamal Jumblatt in 1977, as well

as President Rene Moawad in 1989 and many others. Suspicion has long

fallen on Syria, but until now hard evidence has been lacking. As more

and more witnesses testify, the Lebanese may learn the haqiqa about all

these outrages (perhaps including murders committed by other

intelligence services, like Israel's, America's, Iraq's and Iran's).

What the United States does with this information, however, is another

matter. This must worry the Lebanese as much as it does the Syrians. For

Lebanon, despite its obsession with removing itself from Syrian

tutelage, wants to keep its war buried in the past. No Lebanese, apart

from a few psychopaths, would like to risk a resumption of conflict

merely to dispose of the Assad regime.

 

In Lebanon, something happened after the war. Most Lebanese came to

think less about politics and more about themselves. Without the war to

distract people, the suicide rate for those not seeking martyrdom rose.

Many Lebanese looked to psychiatry, spiritualism, hedonism, house

redecoration, art or plastic surgery to change themselves. Earlier this

year a businessman in Beirut told me that about 80 percent of the

country's billboards advertised beauty enhancement--nose jobs,

liposuction, tanning salons, skin lighteners and hair restorers. This

signals abandonment of the political realm, as often happens when war

destroys the idealism that led to it. Alan Ross observed something

similar among British poets in the aftermath of World War II, a "turning

away from public issues to private problems, a nostalgia that looks

wearily back from the social pressures of an age dealing in ideological

betrayal, to the more involved but less revealing crises of the human

heart." What was true for C. Day Lewis, Louis MacNeice and John Betjeman

appears to hold for Lebanon's writers after their longer, home-grown

war.

 

Malu Halasa and Roseanne Khalaf's collection of Lebanese postwar

writing, Transit Beirut, depicts the apolitical concerns of postwar

Lebanese. "My Lebanese Sandwich," by Maher Kassar and Ziad Halwani,

depicts the Lebanese male facing a life in his family's house on an

upper floor that his parents are waiting to add as soon as he marries.

"Then, there will be two rival kitchens competing just to feed you. Your

wife will get hell from your mother. First, she will pretend to teach

her how to cook. She will give her the recipes just the way you've

always liked them. Only for some reason, they will never turn out nearly

as good. Too much salt, overcooked, not enough cinnamon." This goes on

for years until "the secret has been passed on and she, your mother, has

made sure that you will be fed the same food. FOR THE REST OF YOUR

LIFE." Food for the Lebanese, as for the Italians, takes precedence over

war. Each village has a specialty that no other village can cook

properly. Zgharta claims the finest kibbeh. Zahleh distills the best

arak. Chtaura produces the purest labneh, soured cream and yogurt.

Others claim the best bread, cheese, hummus, stews or sweets. And yet

Lebanon wanted something more. "During the war," Kassar and Halwani

write, "people dreamt of having a McDonald's in Beirut." Peace delivered

the fruit of American civilization at last:

 

Civilization.... We asked for it and we got it, big time. Along with the

new roads, the new infrastructure, the new international airport, a

brand new downtown, cellular phone networks, satellite TV, superstar

European DJs and modern beach resorts, the thirteen-year-long effort to

reconstruct Lebanon after the war led to the opening of 9 McDonald's, 8

Burger Kings, 4 KFCs, 11 Starbucks, 6 Dunkin' Donuts, 1 TGI Fridays and

8 Pizza Huts.... Like a new toy, the Lebanese played with the Whopper,

tried the McFlurry and collected all the buttons and badges from TGI

Fridays.

 

One of the writers tries the latest McDonald's gimmick: the McArabia.

"Would a Swedish person," he asks himself, "accept asking for a

'McScandinavia' or worse, a Frenchman order a 'McFrance'?"

 

Longing for antebellum grandeur obsesses many Lebanese too young to

remember it. Antoine Boulad writes in "Place des Martyrs" that the old

center of Beirut induces "a kind of painful nostalgia. It breaks my

heart and tears my consciousness apart." Abbas El-Zein writes for all

Beirutis, "I take a stroll in the beautifully restored old city of

Beirut. Dark thoughts keep me company. Will all this be destroyed

again?" Roseanne Khalaf, who returned to Lebanon in 1995 after eleven

years away, writes in "Living Between Worlds," "This was not the

Lebanon

I had come back to in my mind; not the country I had revisited countless

times in my imagination. Perhaps the Lebanon I had known and loved never

existed at all."

 

Postwar wistfulness has not affected Hezbollah. Never a participant in

the Muslim-Christian, rightist-leftist clashes that defined most of the

civil war, Hezbollah went on battling Israeli occupation after the Taif

accords of 1989 and the Syrian conquest of East Beirut in 1990

officially brought peace. (The United States had agreed to Syrian

control of all Lebanon in exchange for Syrian participation in the war

to expel Iraq from Kuwait.) The party agreed to take part in the

country's first postwar parliamentary elections in 1992 and every

election since. It stayed out of government, however, until this year,

when it assumed the energy portfolio. Its evolution on the Lebanese

political scene--from kidnappers of foreign nationals in the 1980s to

responsible and honest legislators--has impressed even the most secular

Christians. Yet because Israel took another ten years from war's end to

withdraw, Hezbollah remained an armed resistance. Even after Israel's

withdrawal, Hezbollah did not give up--holding out for Shebaa Farms--and

thus still refuses to disarm, as all other Lebanese militias did after

1990.

 

The complicated history of Shebaa made it problematic for other

Lebanese, who had acquiesced when Syria seized the area from Lebanon in

1957. Syria lost Shebaa to Israel--along with its own Golan Heights--in

1967. The UN ruled that Shebaa was a matter for discussion between Syria

and Israel, and most Lebanese--who do not want war with Israel or anyone

else--accepted it. Hezbollah has not renounced its principle that all

Lebanese territory must be liberated. Syria, which had claimed Shebaa

for itself until Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, cynically

chose to regard it as Lebanese territory in order to use Hezbollah as

its last point of pressure on Israel so that it could maintain leverage

in negotiations for the Golan Heights. Shebaa allows Hezbollah--in

soul-searching mode after its bungled attempt to support a continued

Syrian presence in Lebanon--to remain on the only footing it has ever

known: war. Hezbollah has also reversed the relationship it enjoyed with

the Palestinian organizations, who taught the Shiites how to use

Kalashnikovs in the mid-1970s. Now Hezbollah teaches young Palestinians

not only how to handle weapons but how to develop strategies and to

trust God to bring them victory--as He did in Lebanon--over Israel.

Sheikh Naim Qassem writes, "What happened in Lebanon can be repeated in

Palestine." This makes Hezbollah and its state benefactors, Syria and

Iran, an Israeli obsession.

 

The United States managed to rob Syria of long-term gains in Lebanon in

April when, in combination with Lebanese rage over the assassination of

Hariri and UN Resolution 1559, it forced the Syrian army out of the

country. Israel, since Egypt withdrew from the Arab-Israeli conflict in

1979, has sought to eliminate Syria as its only credible frontline

adversary. Syria is clearly the next phase of the American-Israeli

battle for the Middle East, and the Lebanese fear that their country

will become the battle's terrain. It probably will, if the United States

pushes Lebanon to sign a peace treaty with Israel, disarm Hezbollah

or allow the US Navy to construct a base on the Lebanese shore.

 

Back in 1996, when Richard Perle, Douglas Feith and David and Meyrav

Wurmser were still working for Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, their

"Study Group on a New Israeli Strategy Toward 2000" recommended

"securing tribal alliances with Arab tribes that cross into Syrian

territory and are hostile to the Syrian ruling elite" in a position

paper called "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,"

adopted by their subsequent employer, George W. Bush. As well as using

the tribes like latter-day Lawrences of Arabia, they had another ploy

for dealing with Damascus: "This effort can focus on removing Saddam

Hussein from power in Iraq--an important Israeli strategic objective in

its own right--as a means of foiling Syria's regional ambitions." What

are Syria's regional ambitions? Is a relatively weak state of 18

million, whose oil production barely covers domestic consumption, whose

unemployment runs to at least 20 percent, whose farm laborers earn their

living in Lebanon and whose army relies on old Soviet weapons, worth so

much trouble? The United States is using Lebanon, Syrian exiles and

Syrian Kurds to harass the Syrian regime; and the consequences could be

as harmful to Syria as the American invasion has been to Iraq.

 

Flynt Leverett, who served on the National Security Council staff under

Condoleezza Rice, notes in Inheriting Syria that the neoconservatives at

the Defense Department and in Vice President Cheney's office "were

intrigued by the idea of using Lebanon as a pressure point against

Damascus from the beginning of Bush's tenure." The Syrians have

attempted to placate the United States by turning over Al Qaeda

suspects, expelling radical Palestinian leaders, sending Iraqi exiles

back to Iraq and cooperating with the US military along their border

with Iraq. That was insufficient for the Bush Administration, which

rebuffed Syria's overtures. The civilian hierarchy in the Defense

Department ordered the commander of the 101st Airborne Division, Gen.

David Petraeus, to cease his fruitful working relationship with the

Syrian military last year. This political decision may have increased

the risk to American soldiers in Iraq. The same neoconservatives also

rejected Syrian assistance on Al Qaeda.

 

If the Syrian regime is overthrown, the alternatives may be no more

congenial to American-Israeli interests. A pro-American regime

installed by the United States à la Iraq would undoubtedly face a

rebellion similar to Iraq's. The other option, government by the Sunni

fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, would be unlikely to produce a

felicitous peace along Israel's border with Lebanon. It might be more

inclined than the current president, young Bashar al-Assad, to open the

Golan Heights to infiltration by Palestinian and other commandos for the

first time. The inevitable Israeli reprisals would suit a revolutionary

fundamentalist regime. As Hezbollah discovered when Israel occupied

Lebanon, it is easier to unify people for war to save the homeland than

to organize them when there is no threat.

 

 
 
Jennifer Loewenstein
 



 
Jennifer Loewenstein
amadea311@earthlink.net