Salafi spillover

Hints of new civil war creeping from Lebanon’s north

"We salute the Free Syrian Army,” reads a banner in Badawi, a poor suburb of Tripoli, where the Lebanese flag is about as common as the three-starred flag that adorned flagpoles in Syria prior to the 1963 Baath Revolution. Further down the road, a billboard heaps praise upon the “Islamic” revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen.

Tripoli and the north of Lebanon are increasingly entangled in the Syrian quagmire, which could have dangerous implications for the future of Lebanon as a whole. As the Syrian conflict grows increasingly violent, Tripoli is no longer merely a safe haven for civilian refugees. It is also a base for the FSA to treat its wounded, as well as pick up arms and supplies. Syria is not at all popular in the predominantly Sunni city. Most inhabitants have not forgotten the heavy-handed presence of the Syrian army during and after the Lebanese Civil War. Many people were killed, or “disappeared”, and members of the Islamic movements bore the brunt of Damascus’ wrath. 

Today, seeing their Muslim brethren being killed in Syria, they smell revenge. Mohamed, a Badawi shopkeeper, armed with a walkie-talkie and a handgun under his shirt, explained how cross-border activities between Lebanon and Syria concerned people, medication and arms. He complained about inflation: three dollars for a bullet and up to $2,000 for an AK-47. “Thank God, we are supported by the Gulf,” he said. The financial and logistic support for the Syrian uprising by countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia is no longer a secret. British daily The Times on January 22, for example, reported that Qatar and Saudi Arabia were beginning to fund the Syrian National Council (SNC) and armed groups fighting the Assad regime. On paper, the SNC is an umbrella organization for Syrian opposition groups. In reality, it is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, while there appear to be sharp internal divisions. Such growing pains are of course only normal for an organization less than a year old. 

On January 26, the SNC published a one-page ad in Al Hayat thanking Saudi King Abdullah for his generous support; the 87-year-old monarch as a symbol of change in the age of Twitter and Facebook — who could ever have thought? Other reports are even more worrisome. On February 12, Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri urged Muslims in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan to join the struggle in Syria. A day earlier the Iraqi vice-Minister of Interior, Adnan al-Assadi, claimed that Iraqi arms and Jihadists were crossing the western border.

While most mainstream media continue to broadcast a black and white picture of “the people vs. the power,” the mood of Syrian artists, students and intellectuals in west Beirut’s trendier bars is changing. They feel “their” revolution is slipping out of their hands. 

“The regime has committed too many crimes — we want it to fall,” a student from Homs summed things up. “Yet you cannot deny that the opposition is mainly Sunni. The religious minorities and Kurds are hardly part of the uprising. If the majority of the Syrian people vote for an Islamic government, I think we should give it a try. But seeing the way things are going, I fear a civil war.”  

If that were to be the future for Syria, then Lebanon would be foolish to think it can remain unaffected. The recent deadly clashes between pro and anti-Syrian factions in Tripoli were but a warning shot. The suggested solution, to turn the city into an arms-free zone, was well-meant yet laughable. No sane Lebanese person would dare uphold that as a feasible option. The problem with arming (radical) Sunni groups in Afghanistan, Iraq, and even Libya, has proven to be an unpredictable affair, as they often have their own agendas. Lebanon should know, following the pitched battles with Sunni fundamentalists at Diniyeh and Nahr Al Bared. Ask a shopkeeper, such as Mohamed, what he thinks should come next and the answer is truly frightening. According to him, the Shia simply are not Muslims and it is only thanks to Hezbollah that Assad is still in power. Therefore, following the fall of the latter, it should be the former’s turn. “If we had not had a civil war in Lebanon, Lebanon would today be Palestine,” he said. “That’s why we need another civil war to get rid of Hezbollah, so Lebanon is not an Iranian satellite state.”

Peter Speetjens

Peter Speetjens is a Dutch journalist & analyst based in Brazil.