Beirut’s bombs are a message from Assad to the West

The London Evening Standard - 23 October 2012

Ask anyone for a place which encapsulates the instability and violence of the Middle East and most will come up with Beirut. It is a full 22 years since the end of Lebanon’s bitterly divisive civil war, and yet its capital city remains shorthand for sectarian chaos. When I was there earlier this year, you could still see the shell holes on beach-front promenades, while entire buildings in particularly volatile suburbs looked like gutted artillery targets.

The legacy of almost daily killings was slowly receding, however, with a genuine hope of peace and stability prevalent in all communities. There had been impressive reconstruction programmes across Beirut, with sectors including tourism and finance booming.

That all changed this week when a massive car bomb proved that the murderous hatred had never really gone away. Worse still, the killing of security chief Wissam al-Hassan appears to have everything to do with the civil war raging in nearby Syria.

Al-Hassan’s funeral turned into a mass protest against Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime, which is accused of trying to spread its conflict across the Lebanese border. In August, the  former Lebanese information minister who was close to Assad was arrested by al-Hassan’s agents and accused of importing Syrian-made explosives to be used in sectarian attacks in Lebanon. A revenge hit was always likely, as was renewed fighting between Sunni Muslims, whom al-Hassan supported, and Shi’ite groups such as Hezbollah, which is based in Lebanon and actively supported by both Syria and Iran.

The civil war in Syria has already spilled into Lebanese border villages, where Assad’s army regularly shells alleged Sunni rebels. There has also been fierce fighting between Sunnis and Shi’ites loyal to Assad in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli.

What this effectively means is that the gunmen and bombers who have taken to the streets since al-Hassan’s death are fighting the Syrian civil war by proxy. When you consider that the Lebanese civil war went on for 15 years, killing some 120,000 people and wounding around a million more, the implications are truly terrifying.

All this horror will play into the hands of the notoriously cunning Assad, an Alawite Shi’ite. A conflict in Lebanon will not only draw attention away from his direct killing. It will prove that Assad’s threat to reduce the entire region to pandemonium if the West intervenes in Syria militarily is not an idle one. The power to prosecute war as, when and where one likes is one that tyrants have used to maintain their grip on power throughout the ages.

The Syrian civil war has claimed up to 50,000 lives since it started at the beginning of the Arab Spring more than 18 months ago. It has exposed not just the muddled foreign policy of Western powers, but the abject inability of international diplomacy to deal with wanton sectarianism. The current call by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for a ceasefire and an arms embargo is one of the few positive attempts at peace since the start of the conflict.

There is no doubt that the chances of bringing an end to the Syrian war currently look extremely unlikely. The increased involvement of Beirut, the traditional embodiment of Middle East chaos, risk making such a prospect impossible.

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