BEIRUT- Perched on the pedestal of the Martyrs’ statue in central Beirut, a group of young men are waving Lebanese flags, and Syrian ones too. “Freedom, freedom!,” they chant. “Lebanese people and Syrian people are one!” Soon after, they start shouting the names of the cities attacked the past few days by the Baathist regime’s latest offensive.
The slogans and city names are chanted by a crowd of no more than 100 people who have come to show their support to Syrian people. The turnout may seem small, but it is the biggest demonstration in Beirut against violence in Syria since the beginning of the uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in March.
“The atmosphere of fear, the weight of organized religions and fears of the Baathist regime had until now prevented the mobilization from growing,” says the writer Elias Khoury with a rose in one hand and a candle in the other one. He is among a small group of Lebanese intellectuals who called on the nation to break the silence about repression in Syria “that has become a crime against Syrian people.”
The small crowd controlled by a strict security operation was a reminder of how the previous demonstration of support ended up with fights between pro and anti Assad camps. It is also a reminder of how complicated the issue of Syria continues to be in Lebanon, its smaller neighbor to the southwest.
“Actions and Reactions in Lebanon as the Situation in Syria Dictates” was a recent front-page headline in Al-Balad, an Arabic-language daily. The title does well to sum up the situation in Lebanon, a country whose deep religious and political fractures inevitably seep back and forth across the Syrian border.
The issue came to the fore after last week’s UN Security Council declaration condemning the regime's repression against demonstrators. Disassociating itself from the United Nations’ text, Lebanon, a non-permanent member of the Security Council, chose to sit out the vote, sparking the opposition’s criticism of the government in Beirut, which is dominated by a pro-Hezbollah faction with ties to Damascus. (All diplomatic eyes will be on Lebanon at the end of August when it takes over the rotating presidency of the UN Security Council.)
Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Miqati defended the government’s position, saying it “won’t interfere in Syria’s domestic affairs.” Miqati characterized violence in Syria as “sad,” and asked political leaders to “stop using events occurring in Syria for political purposes.”
The comments were an implicit accusation of the party of former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. A close ally of Saudi Arabia (a country that has recently denounced the regime’s violence against the Syrian people), Hariri has strongly criticized the Lebanese government’s views on the issue. “The government cannot hide the massacre going on inside its closest Arab neighbor,” the former prime minister said in a statement.
Meanwhile, inside Lebanon, the divisions over Syria are visible everywhere. Depending on their allegiance, news outlets relay Damascus’ version blaming “armed gangs” for the chaos, or back the demonstrators as a popular “uprising.” The wider society in Lebanon is also split: while both personal sympathy towards Syrian people and the fear of seeing a civil war cross into Lebanon are shared by many, views on the situation still break down along religious or ideological lines.
Many Christians, who in 2005 were quick to denounce the Syrian occupation in Lebanon, fear that the situation in Damascus weakens Lebanon’s overall standing in the Middle East. On the other hand, the Shiite community continues to see Hezbollah as its guarantor on the national scene, fearing the fall of the Syrian regime could isolate them in Lebanon.
A series of recent incidents such as a Syrian boat attack against Lebanese fishermen, the July 26 attack against French UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) troops, and tensions along the Israeli border reinforce the fear that Lebanon has a way of becoming the crossroads of all the Middle East’s most intractable problems.
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Photo- Paul Keller