Johnny West, a writer specializing in the Middle East, reports from Lebanon on the ripple effects of the current uprising in Syria. He describes the refugee crisis at the country’s borders, and gives a glimpse into the sectarian dynamic as the death toll from the protests continues to rise.
On one side of the conflict are the Alawis, the minority sect from which Syria’s ruling Assad family comes; on the other are the majority Sunni Muslims. West finds himself in the middle of clashes between the two groups in Tripoli, in northern Lebanon.
I was looking for Syrian kind of trouble but couldn’t get into Syria. Due in Beirut for a work trip, I had arrived a few days early to head up to Wadi Khaled in Lebanon’s far north. A small lick of land up there juts into Syria just south of Krak des Chevaliers and thousands of people from towns on the Syrian side of the border had fetched up in the preceding weeks before, fleeing house to house searches and outright invasion by their own army. I’d met refugee families camped on open farmland, others who still commuted to Lebanon freely from the city of Homs as business owners or day labourers, and the many extended families whose members straddled the border. I’d walked across a freshly cropped field of hay to the edge of the Kabir River and looked twenty yards across the knee-deep muddy water to Syria, its reed beds, market garden hothouses and dirty, small-town concrete buildings indistinguishable from the Lebanese side on which I stood. No barbed wire or walls, no flags even. Just the intense awareness of being in the line of sight of an invisible sniper’s rifle, on open ground.
Evidence of the crisis was everywhere. I forgot the rules of journalism and found myself stuffing a paltry wad of Lebanese lira into the hand of a reluctant elder, only to curse myself and the young man who trailed me back to my car looking for his own handout. But the humanitarian crisis itself was generic, much as it must have been in Kosovo or Bosnia, Libya or Iraq. As mobile, affluent, privileged outsiders, our questions to these refugees who had so recently had to flee their homes were just points along the single vector of suffering – how much have you suffered, are you suffering, will you suffer, and in what ways? That accumulated suffering, weighed and conveyed, becomes a kind of combustible fuel that feeds the news cycle.
But the political talk was more striking. The Syrians streaming across the border were Sunni Muslims from the heartlands – Homs, Hama, Tal Kalakh – and their hearts were full of hatred for the Alawi sect from which the Assads come. Not just the Assads themselves, or the regime which they head, but all two and a half million of the Alawis in Syria.
‘Why does the Alawi behave like an animal?’ said Abu Mohammed, sitting in his workshop he has run in a Lebanese village just over the border for the last ten years.‘Because he has no religious deterrent. You and I believe in Heaven and Hell – we are afraid of God. But for the Alawi this life is all there is. We are less than animals to him.’
‘They are not Muslims,’ said Abu Ahmad. ‘They say they are Shia but they’re not.’
These people had plenty of reason to be angry. I’m not sure I’d choose my words carefully either if I was sleeping in a makeshift tent, uncertain of when or if I could ever go home, and worried sick about my son, made to serve in the same army that shot at me and now endangered to some degree, by my marked absence. But the ontological nature of the rhetoric was unsettling. Not what the Alawis do, but what they are. Were the Assads right when they predicted civil war without them? I didn’t want to believe it.
I decided to stop in on Tripoli, Lebanon’s second city, on my way back to Beirut. Most of the country’s 150,000 Alawis live there, side by bristling side with a fundamentalist Sunni Muslim community on the hill overlooking the port. Even if I didn’t have a chance to see the dynamic at work in Syria, it was on full display by proxy in Lebanon.
When I called Rifaat Eid, the man who can get 1,500 armed Alawis onto the streets, he told me to drop by in the evening. How will I find you, I asked. Just head to the Jabel Mohsen district and ask, he said. He was right. Ten seconds after I stopped at a garage to ask, a teenager zipped up on a moped. Follow me, he said, and weaved through the traffic up the hill, then off the road and straight through two checkpoints that stirred into life at our approach, as if his moped and my economy hire car was its own motorcade. A minute later I was parking in front of a house, and the teenager had handed me over to a bodybuilder called Ali – tank top, shaved head, tattoos, modest bling, walkie-talkie and a handgun. As he waddled ahead of me into the house there was a burst of automatic some way off. Not a disagreement I hope, I said, concentrating on an even tone. No, no, said Ali the Muscle, laughing. Celebration. After a four-month impasse, the new Lebanese government had been announced earlier that day and one more minister than expected had been allocated to Tripoli, so the boys – not his boys or their boys but ‘the boys’ in general – were out whooping it up, he explained.
Ali walked me into Rifaat’s office and disappeared. And then Rifaat was straight into me.
‘Look at that collective grave,’ he said, flicking up the volume on a flat screen TV hung against the wall, a pro-regime channel showing concerned Syrian officials talking about the massacre by armed gangs. ‘Isn’t it awful? Why don’t you report on what these criminals are doing?’
It took us two minutes to reach affable stalemate on the relativity of sources. Who was to say that al-Jadeed TV, which he watched, is the one lying and al-Jazeera or the BBC are telling the truth? Surely you can’t believe the regime, I said. You journalists, he replied.
He sat forward, hands woven together on the desk in front of him. He was in his early thirties, with close-cropped hair and a bull neck, wearing a button-down shirt and slacks. Although he told me his wife and children were US citizens and that he himself had a green card and travelled there every summer, Rifaat spoke almost no English.
Behind him was a trophy bookcase stacked with a multi-volume series of the works and collected thoughts of Hafez al-Assad, Bashar al-Assad and Moussa Sadr, the charismatic preacher whom many credit with having helped Lebanon’s dispossessed Shia community find their voice back in the 70s. All of them displaying a large portrait of their heroes spread across the spine of the entire series. Books to be admired rather than read. In English, the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Children’s Britannica and Patrick Seale’s biography Asad of Syria. On the walls were big glossy photos of the Assads father and son, and Rifaat’s own father Ali Eid, who had mobilized Lebanon’s Alawites in the 1970s.
‘Have you read The Protocols of the Elders of Zion?’ he asked me. ‘It’s very good, I’ll find you a copy.’ He started to rummage around in his drawers, muttering something about how, a century ago, it had had the foresight to predict war in underground tunnels. I couldn’t see what was prophetic about that and in fact was more concerned about how to get out of receiving a copy. Where I come from, it’s a book that defiles you.
As we engaged in more back-and-forth about the Western conspiracy to destroy Syria, a coherent discours provocateur emerged. Sure, there’s some corruption in Syria and even, yes, some poverty, he said. But at least you don’t see people rummaging around in rubbish bins, like you do blacks in America, and if there are any issues to sort out, the Assads are just the guys to do it. It wasn’t his riff, of course. This is Baath Party classic.
The stakes were high in Tripoli. The Alawis on Jabel Mohsen and the salafists, or Sunni Muslim fundamentalists, next door in Bab al-Tabbaneh, were in perpetual standoff. In 2008 a firefight had led to several deaths and gang fighting was on-going. Eyes followed you wherever you went in that part of town. My status as a clueless foreigner gave me some minimal protection but an unidentified Arab wouldn’t last five minutes on those streets. Poster iconography deftly defined the boundaries between the two neighbourhoods, Jabel Mohsen adorned with fifteen-foot posters of Bashar al-Assad, one in a handshake with Rifaat, while black flags with the Muslim shahada, the main profession of faith, marked the entrance to the Sunni neighbourhoods along with, here and there, posters of Turkey’s Prime Minister Reccep Tayyip Erdogan.
‘They would kill us in our beds if they could,’ Rifaat said. ‘Two weeks ago the sermon at Friday prayers told them to kill our girls and boys when they get the chance. I heard it myself,’ he said.
Ali the Muscle poked his head round the door twice asking for instructions about this and that. Rifaat also took a couple of phone calls, one of which I guessed was with someone fairly senior in the political class in Beirut. ‘Talk to Walid,’ he said. (Walid Jumblatt, leader of the Druze sect and a veteran player of the Lebanese political game.) ‘Walid knows how to do this.’
The only chink in Rifaat’s armour appeared when, in response to yet another riff on the Western plot against Syria’s noble Resistance – the Assads’ raison d’etre for forty years being their staunch defiance of Zionist aggression – I expostulated: What Resistance is that? What land has it liberated and how many Syrians have fallen martyr to the cause? It’s a common refrain of the Syrian opposition. When the tanks entered Homs, protesters ran out into the streets pointing back behind them – ‘The Golan’s that way!’ But Rifaat didn’t expect it from a Westerner and did a double take. You’re in favour of bloodshed, he asked. I’m in favour of straight speaking, I replied.
Rifaat shifted forward across the desk.
‘Look, you need to understand something. We Alawis were nothing in Lebanon until the Syrians came in 1977,’ he said, referring to the entry of the Syrian army, under the command of Bashar’s father Hafez, at the start of the Lebanese civil war. ‘My father went to America in 1960. He saw Martin Luther King and Malcolm X speak and he got a degree in chemistry. Then he did another degree at the American University in Beirut. Look, there’s his certificate on the wall. And when he’d finished, the only job he could get was as a garbage man or customs clerk. They just wanted us to clean their shoes.
‘He came back home to Tripoli and spent two years thinking about politics. Then he founded the Arab Youth Movement. Then the war started and the Syrians came and they showed us how to fight, how to mobilize. And we learned to defend ourselves. Even when they withdrew, we got two seats in the Lebanese parliament.
‘So I am with them, right or wrong. They are my guys and I am theirs. Right or wrong. Because they are our only hope,’ he said.
I could understand that kind of loyalty, I said. But wasn’t that a personal position rather than a political one? As a leader, didn’t he bear a responsibility to his community to at least try and leave other paths open a fraction? Otherwise, where would they be if the Assads did go down in Syria?
Rifaat just shrugged. Right or wrong, there is no other hope, he kept repeating. A thunderstorm had broken outside and rain crashed against the roof and windows. Rifaat was courteous as he walked me to the door. Ali the Muscle saw me to my car and signalled to his guys to open the checkpoints.
The next day, in Tripoli, Lebanon, I ran into some young bloods by the clock tower in the centre of town. I had foolishly believed the parking meters to be decorative and found my car had been clamped while I was having breakfast. At three dollars, the fine was more of an experience than a deterrent and I called the telephone number printed on the ticket and waited for someone to come release my car. Meanwhile I drank coffee at a nearby street stand.
A young man called Amr was sitting near me on a plastic chair, getting a shoulder rub from his friend. When he learned who I was and where I had been, he spat on the ground.
‘The Alawi are dogs. In fact, that’s an insult to dogs,’ he said. ‘We are going to deal with them. Soon.’
His massaging friend told me he’d just come home from a long stretch living in Sydney. I wondered whether he suffered any cognitive dissonance as he looked out on the street with its chaotic bustle, bullet-pocked buildings and the tide of plastic bags swept by the early morning breeze across the square like urban tumbleweed. Amr was clearly a boss of some kind. He ‘worked’ in the shop we were outside and people came up and asked his opinion on various things, which he issued curtly. As we chatted, a big man, like all of them in his mid-twenties, solidly built and wearing a barrio string vest turned up. Amr introduced me and his friend stood there, all six foot four of him, and blew me a kiss, po-faced. I’ve always appreciated the potential to demonstrate virility through camp. My grandfather Billy, a decorated career soldier and prize-winning boxer with more than a touch of Errol Flynn to him, had loved cross-dressing for vaudeville. But here it took on a sinister air, a promise, somehow, of blood. What are we going to do to the Alawi dogs? Amr asked. Big Man drew his finger across his throat. The parking attendant turned up on a moped and Amr made to intimidate him into not collecting the fine. I insisted on paying up. The guy, after all, was just doing his job.
As I got into the car, Amr drew me aside, conspiratorially, which was odd since we were already alone. They are nothing. Worse than animals. We will cut their throats like sheep, he said.
I headed on to Beirut where I was giving a workshop on Iraqi oil for the United Nations. We stayed in one of the country clubs above Jounieh, the Maronite heartland, and popped down to Beirut at night along a six-lane, five-mile strip mall with huge posters advertising cosmetic surgery and foreign currency futures. Tripoli was only an hour north but seemed a lot further away.
Three days later, the radio and TV channels were full of news of fighting in Tripoli. After Friday night prayers, there were two demonstrations against the Syrian regime. One, which ran from the main Hamza Mosque to the Noor Square in the centre of town, was led by the League of Muslim Students and Syrian students at the Lebanese University. I imagine this as proper civil dissent, with thought-out slogans carefully inscribed on banners and orderly marching. The other demonstration was from Bab al-Tabbaneh, the stronghold of the salafists, led by men with the dress code of militant orthodox Sunnis, perfumed beards, immaculate dishdashas and skullcaps.
This is the demonstration that led to the violence. They tore up pictures of Omar Karami, a respected national figure from Tripoli whose son had just joined the new government. On Jabal Mohsen a few streets away, young men came onto the street and hoisted a huge picture of Bashar al-Assad. The two rival groups of protesters moved closer to each other, chanting. Then a sound grenade was set off amid a throng of men on the street and, according to eyewitnesses, all hell broke loose. Everyone with a weapon on the street started to fire, wildly, randomly. I read the report in the newspaper al-Hayat that an off-duty soldier in the Lebanese army had been killed standing outside his house. Mundhir al-Rifai was shot in the head sitting in his car on his way home from work. Another man called Mohammed Shaqra was killed, as was a teenager late in the afternoon. Reading this, I remembered hearing that someone once calculated that during Lebanon’s civil war, a million rounds were fired for every person killed. I don’t know how you’d know that but the scars on its cities a generation later would suggest something of the kind.
In paragraph seven of the al-Hayat story, the dry recount of the ‘score’ snapped into life. ‘Security sources said that the security chief of the Arab Democratic Party Ali Faris was hit, as was Khodr Faris of Bab al-Tabbaneh, by a serious wound, and that the first man died in hospital.’
Ali the Muscle was dead.
The new prime minister of Lebanon, Najib Mikati, also from Tripoli, was visiting the city that day and took the fighting as a personal insult. In a press conference held at his house, while sporadic bursts of automatic still punctured the calm of the evening, al-Hayat reported, he said it was clearly a message, adding that he didn’t know where the message was from and what, in fact, this message was. ‘We will investigate. We don’t accuse anyone,’ he said. Opposition politician Samir al-Jisr immediately accused Mikati of accusing, indirectly, the opposition of being behind the violence.
Mikati and the other politicians might be right, this could be some message. Someone in Damascus or Riyadh, or Ealing come to that, might have placed a call and said this is the day, show them what’s what. That’s the way proxy struggles work. Or they could just be acting on default. It’s the Levant. Things can’t just be what they are; they have to mean something else, something hidden. Lebanese politics is an endless game where assassinations join ministerial appointments and shuttle diplomacy as another way you keep count.
There’s no way of knowing. But I was struck by a paradox.
It’s a truism that sectarianism dehumanizes the Other. The talk I’d heard couldn’t come free. Blood was always going to flow. The Alawis/Sunnis are dogs, or animals or, worse, fanatics or unbelievers. But by the mere chance of meeting the protagonists three days before they took their fight to the street, I also realized how sectarianism dehumanizes its perpetrators too.
I thought of Rifaat Eid, probably bunkered down, his young crew frightened by Ali’s death, in over their heads, too proud to admit it, and jumpy as hell with too much ordnance. I wondered whether Amr and Big Man had been on the other side, setting off some rounds, looking for targets to pick off. And Ali the Muscle clean gone, his mother and father still alive most likely – he was no more than thirty-five – and forced to bury their murdered boy.
All of them have brothers or cousins who aren’t in the game the way they are. They might not voice dissent, but they vote with their feet, moving to to Virginia or Sydney or even just to Beirut and a decent job. Which means that every single man who has stayed, and is locked in that conflict, has come there through various complicated life choices over a period of time. And yet all individuality is collapsed by the dog-eat-dog language of ‘us and them’ into a choice between one of two separate, irreconcilable identities, locked in conflict with the other.
Photograph © Wikimedia Commons, Demonstration in Banyas, Syria, 6 May 2011