BEIRUT April 2005
Political tension has mounted in Lebanon since the killing in February of the former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri who did much to rebuild the country after its 15-year civil war. What is the risk of fresh conflict there?
Ali Aliwan, just turned 41, is a jovial man – red-faced, fingers stained with nicotine, a slight paunch. When I met him, his concentration was on a game of street draughts and he wasn’t shy with advice on his next move.
He was with half a dozen others, in the middle of the morning, board balanced on an upturned box, next to a wall still pockmarked with bullets from the civil war which ended 15 years ago.
They had all fought in it, and Ali led me across the road and up a mound, half grass, half debris.
‘This was the exact line between east and west Beirut. You had snipers everywhere and you couldn’t cross,’ he said, overlooking a parking lot where the sun in the light blue Beirut sky was catching the chrome of the Mercedes and BMWs parked there.
Ali had fought for a Muslim, pro-Palestinian militia, but he also referred to himself in outdated international language as being a leftist. And when asked about the risk of another civil war, he shook his head.
‘No,’ he said. ‘You see, we were funded by foreign powers and that’s not happening this time.’
In a way, the civil war mirrored the Cold War in that the US supported one side and the Soviet Union another.
Now Lebanon once again finds itself caught directly in the crossfire of a new global conflict, a tiny country with fragile loyalties buffeted between America and Syria, one of Washington’s more recent enemies.
The political platforms – as seen from outside – depend on whether you are pro- or anti-Syrian.
The pros represent Islamic authoritarianism, the antis the democratic West. This is why anti-Syrian demonstrations are hailed in Washington as part of a wave of democracy sweeping the Middle East.
Before arriving, I had talked to Tom Caruthers, from an influential Washington think-tank, about the risk of a new civil war in Lebanon.
‘The US shouldn’t be in a position of fomenting civil conflict in another country,’ he said, ‘ but, at the same time, Lebanon can’t be condemned to a situation of semi-occupation by Syria. There is a risk, but this is a risk-taking administration – particularly in the Middle East.’
Except, it seems, the Lebanese might have learnt from the last time around.
One of the key players wields influence from a castle high in the Chouf mountains outside Beirut. He is the leader of a small and close-knit sect known as the Druze. Its fighters were deployed as far back as the 13th Century to protect the coastline against Christian crusaders.
The castle is a museum of Soviet Cold War memorabilia. A wall-size portrait of Lenin stares down at Yasser Arafat, there are rows of Soviet medals, a military uniform on a tailor’s dummy, a huge oil painting of Soviet victory against Hitler; and an artillery range-finder, now a polished ornament standing by the sweeping mountain-view window in the living room.
So, whose side are the Druze on this time?
Not a good question in modern Lebanon, particularly when put to the debonair owner of the castle, Walid Jumblat, in his role as leader of a warrior sect.
‘Don’t ask me about all that religious stuff,’ he said. ‘I’m a secularist and a non-believer.’
‘Were you a communist then?’
‘No never,’ he says. ‘But during the Civil War, the Soviets gave us weapons to defend ourselves against the Christians and scholarships to educate the poor. They were very good to us.’
‘And what about now?’ I asked. ‘The Americans are hailing you as a champion of democracy.’
This time he rolled his eyes.
‘They shouldn’t push Syria too far,’ he says. ‘They have an idea of a regime change in Syria and we oppose that. We don’t want the same experience in Syria as in Iraq.’
Over the next few days, in various interviews, it was clear that a common agreement had emerged among the Lebanese.
‘We won’t take part in any civil war,’ said the austere Mohammed Afif of Hizbollah, an Islamic group which in Cold War days would have been in the Soviet camp and is now in the Syrian and Iranian camps.
‘Christians and Muslims alike won’t allow factions to re-introduce violence,’ said an influential Christian member of parliament, Nassib Lahoud.
When I asked him about US suggestions that a multi-national force should come in to replace the Syrians, he added: ‘No. We have not secured Syrian withdrawal to cede the place to other foreign troops.’
I tried to find Ali Aliwan again to run these thoughts past him, but he wasn’t around for that morning’s game of draughts.
Instead I bumped into Samir Buslan, a tall, elegant man in late middle age with thick grey hair who made a living as a driver and a waiter.
He took me to the roof of his apartment block which looked over old sniping positions. During the civil war, Samir was in a minority because he refused to fight. Now, he thinks he’s in a majority.
‘Ten percent of the people want to fight again,’ he said, ‘and make themselves heroes and make some money. But 90% don’t want to fight. They say there’s been enough suffering for our children and our country.’