Frightful ‘Lebanese prospects’ in Syria

Published tuesday july 12th 2011, Goethe Institut Cairo blog

“Was this all it meant then, the Beirut front line, a mile-wide avenue of sepulchral ruins that stretched from the port all the way out to Galerie Semaan, even to the foothills of the Chouf Mountains? How easily we were misled.”…

“How simply we believed that this wasteland was the immediate effect of social antagonism, community tension, civil war. How little we realized that the front line was a focus, that it was important to the Lebanese, the only way to define the indefinable, the only method by which those who had suffered – which meant every Lebanese – could uniquely understand the nature of calamity that had come upon them.” …

“In truth, the Beirut front line could not be repaired, restructured, rebuilt or re-roofed because it had become necessary for the Lebanese. It was a reference point without which the tragedy could not be expressed. It represented the cruelest of all front lines, one that lay deep within the minds of all who lived in Lebanon and all who came there.” …

“For we had all been fooled, even the Lebanese themselves. We believed in the idea of national catastrophe, of national renewal, of political renaissance. We thought that an identity existed beyond the civil conflict. We were taken in by the lies which the Lebanese told about themselves; we had to believe we had not seen the blood on the stairs.”
Robert Fisk, Pity the Nation (p. 52)

Robert Fisk’s words on Lebanon sound prophetic of the situation unfolding in Syria. The violent stand-off between the people and the Syrian government is reminiscent of the first moments in the Lebanese civil war: A government dominated by a de facto minority – in Lebanon the Maronite Christians, in Syria the Alawites – is under public pressure, and blunders.

The second parallel is the recent indictment of members of the Hizbollah for the murder of Rafiq Hariri, by the Lebanon tribunal in Leidschendam, the Netherlands. Suddenly, the situation six years ago resurfaces in my mind’s eye: Syria was still an occupying force in Lebanon and, if not directly related to the murder of Rafiq Hariri, at least very closely related to the Hizbollah, the party now regarded as the powerbase behind the deadly attack on the Lebanese prime-minister. Syria has withdrawn its troops from Lebanese soil since. Five years later Syria is at war with itself.

Poster by the Arab Socialist Baath Party in Lebanon of Hafez al Assad, former president of Syria and father of current president Bashar al Assad (1987). It reads: “7. April. One Arab nation with an eternal message”.
Source: “Off the Wall; Political posters of the Lebanese Civil War” by Zeina Maasri

Reading and writing on the deteriorating situation in Syria, what continues to worry me is how inappropriate our frameworks of reference are. Just as Fisk and his contemporaries were fooled, we are being fooled today, and continue to fool ourselves. “We” being the Syrian opposition, the Syrian government and the international community.

Meanwhile a front is created. A front in almost every town, every city and every heart. It is not clear who is fighting whom, and what for. What remains are the squares, where people demonstrate before the tanks roll in and hearts are torn between fighting for one’s ‘future’, ever insecure, and for one’s life today. Like the Lebanese frontline running through Beirut, the frontline scattered across Syria is fast becoming the only focal point for the Syrian people, the Syrian government and the international community.

It is this mental and physical front, which Fisk recalls for Lebanon, that really worries me. As the frontline sharpens, the parties on either side fade. What are the Syrian government’s plans beyond quelling the opposition? How does the Syrian opposition define itself in such a dispersed and desperate situation? How does the international community choose sides or keep the different parties apart?

Peace keeps retreating as the answers dissolve. Soon, blaming the government or the opposition will become obsolete, as the country is torn apart.

The difference to the Lebanese civil war is, we are less optimistic about Syria. We no longer think this is temporary. Lebanese history has made us aware of the dangers of an unstable Syria. But the absence of the Lebanese chimera, of snow-topped mountains and the bulging sea of the ‘Paris of the Orient”, makes it easier for us to withdraw our hands, to cast down our eyes, of what is only about to unfold.

Ruben Elsinga has an MSc. in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He lived in Damascus, Syria, for one and a half years, where he worked at the Netherlands Institute of Academic Studies.

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