Lebanon keeps the conflict raging across the border in Syria at arm's length

Thu, Apr 5, 2012, 01:00

THE HAMRA district in west Beirut is booming. Restaurants and cafes are springing up along every street and alleyway. People cruise the footpaths looking for bargains in chic shops.

“Hamra is back to its great days,” says Maurice, a survivor from the golden 1960s.

The economic slump that has overtaken the northern Lebanese port of Tripoli and its hinterland due to the region’s connections with Syria has not affected the rest of the country as seriously. Some say deliberately neglected and largely forgotten Tripoli and its surroundings are not even in the same country as Beirut.

Tourism, the main money-earner for Beirut, the coast and the mountains, has fallen off because Gulf families who used to travel by road cannot cross Syria for fear of carjacking, kidnapping and worse.

Five-star hotels and upmarket restaurants have been hard hit, but not smaller hotels, where Syrians come for weekend breathers from the troubles and where non-governmental organisations establish temporary bases to provide aid to Syrian refugees and wounded.

Ziad Hafez, an economist formerly with the International Finance Corporation, says legitimate commercial transactions have declined, but dealers in contraband and speculators snapping up cheap Syrian pounds are flourishing.

By forcing Lebanese banks to boycott Syrian business, the US treasury department deprives these banks of business. But ironically, by compelling Syrian entrepreneurs to repatriate their money, says Hafez, the US is also helping the regime to “safeguard its financial interests”.

The Syrian crisis has given Lebanon’s coalition members, who continue to squabble over key ministerial posts, a pretext to adopt a wait-and-see attitude towards this country’s pressing problems, notably electricity outages, a water shortage, a lack of cooking gas, and tainted meat, poultry and fish.

The mantra on every householder’s lips is: “They aren’t interested in the country, only in putting money in their pockets.”

A businessman says: “I have never seen such corruption in this country. They have even set up a factory to change expired labels on goods.”

He adds, however, that if the current government had been formed by former Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri and his anti-Syrian coalition partners, Lebanon could have been drawn deep into the armed struggle between Syrian rebels and the regime. “The western powers and the Arabs who want to topple the Assad regime would have had a free hand.

“We are fortunate to have [Najib] Mikati as prime minister. He is from Tripoli and is determined to keep the lid on things there. He and his partners do not want the Syrian conflict to become a full-scale civil war. I think he will prevent the conflict from spilling over into Lebanon.”

In his view, Hizbullah, the main Lebanese target of the West, has played a stabilising role. “The crisis has been going for a year and we have not become involved.”

Mikati rejected a recent statement by US assistant secretary Jeffrey Feltman, who said Lebanon had a moral obligation to support those seeking to oust Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

“No one will succeed in luring us into changing our disassociation policy, be it internally or externally,” said Mikati. “Lebanon’s position . . . [is] to respect the right of peoples to freedom without intervention.”

The government is supported by Maronite Catholic patriarch Beshara Rai and Sunni Muslim mufti Sheikh Muhammad Rashid Qabbani, who have been castigated by leaders of their communities who belong to the anti-Syrian government camp.

Ultra-orthodox Sunni Salafi preachers have extended support to the Syrian opposition and the rebels fighting the Syrian army.

A source close to Hizbullah, which holds two portfolios in the 30-minister government, says: “I am not pessimistic about Lebanon because, after a year of unrest in Syria, there has been no political or security crisis here. There is an internal balance of power that prevents [disruptive elements] from provoking clashes. We [Lebanese] are OK for the time being.”

He says Hizbullah has three main priorities: “keep the security situation calm, keep the cabinet from collapsing, and work to prevent fitna”, ie civil strife, particularly between Muslims.

Hafez is also optimistic. He believes the 2013 parliamentary election could change the political landscape in Lebanon.

Fed-up voters could try to “make the leadership more accountable”, he says. In his view, the Syrian crisis caused by the Arab Spring will not follow the pattern set by Tunisia and Egypt, where the “leader has departed but the regime has stayed. In Syria, the head will stay but the regime has now established the mechanism for change.”

Other analysts are not so optimistic about either the ability of Lebanese voters to replace their leaders or the readiness of the Syrian regime to accept the need for change.