My friend and neighbor Richard was starting a series of online meetings in his office in the southeastern suburb of Beirut when all of a sudden all hell broke loose.
He spent the next three hours in shelter on the ground floor as the sounds of war raged around the building, triggering a wave of traumatic memories for someone who had experienced 15 years of civil strife from 1975 onwards.
“All the memories of the civil war came back to me,” he said. “It was very intense, feelings of anger, fear, anxiety, especially for my children. I felt they will experience what I experienced during the civil war.”
When Richard later arrived home safely, he suddenly burst into tears.
“I don’t know why, and the next day I wasn’t able to function at all. It seems the trauma of the war has come back to me. I didn’t want it to happen to me and my children.”
For Richard and many other Lebanese, the sudden outbreak of sectarian clashes in the capital on October 14th set off a screeching alarm bell.
Political tensions were high, the economy was collapsing, electricity and fuel were almost non-existent, prices were skyrocketing – and now gunmen were fighting on the streets again.
Was the country on the verge of another civil war?
Sectarian fault line
One of the many reasons the clashes got such a resonance was the location. The Christian suburb of Ain al-Remmaneh, at the southeastern end of Beirut, was where the civil war began in April 1975, after a series of incidents culminating in the shooting by Christian militiamen of a bus loaded with Palestinians, killing more than 20.
For the next 15 years, Ain al-Remmaneh was at the forefront of a mutant civil war, facing the adjacent suburb of Chiyah, largely Shia Muslim.
It is from Chiyah that a gang of Shia protesters sparked the clashes on October 14 by unleashing them in Ain al-Remmaneh by chanting provocative sectarian slogans: “Shiites, Shiites, Shiites!”
All seven people killed in the ensuing gunfire were Shiites, including some from the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement and Amal’s allied faction.
The incident triggered a virulent exchange of accusations and denials between the Shiite alliance led by Hezbollah and the Christian Lebanese Forces (LF) party.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah accused the LF of sending snipers to shoot from rooftops in an attempt to ignite a civil war in which, he said, Hezbollah would not be involved.
He warned that he could command 100,000 fighters, with the implication that he could defeat his opponents if he had to.
The leader of the LF, Samir Geagea, retorted that his party did not have a militia and was not looking for war. He accused Hezbollah of trying to cover up involvement in the massive explosion at the port of Beirut in August last year by pushing for the dismissal of the investigating judge – the issue that prompted the Shia demonstration.
In 1975, few observers predicted that a full-scale civil war was about to break out. And once that was done, few of us imagined it would go on in different forms for 15 years, creating fault lines that are clearly still there today.
So protests of innocent intentions, and even objective assessments of the balance of power, don’t necessarily mean it might not happen again. When the political stalemate is intense, miscalculations can be made. Once blood is shed, conflict can take on a life of its own, especially in a situation of sectarian animosity.
Political confrontation and polarization are already there. During the Ain al-Remmaneh clashes, Sunnis in neighboring areas and Christians in East Beirut’s Ashrafieh district were on high alert, fearing another “May 7” – the day in 2008 when Hezbollah fighters invaded West Beirut for crush Sunni and Druze opponents.
“If the clashes had involved Sunnis rather than Christians, problems would have erupted across the country within an hour,” a well-placed Sunni military source said, indicating that Sunnis are harboring a virulent grudge against Hezbollah. “People have it up to their necks and a fight with Hezbollah would have been the last straw.”
“I don’t see a civil war tomorrow morning, it will take time, but it will explode with time,” said one veteran politician. “There will be more accidents … that’s how it started in 1975. How can you stop it?”
There was a geopolitical engine driving the conflict in 1975, and there is another now.
Hence, the right-wing Christian factions (which later morphed into the LF) were bent on destroying the power of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the state within a state it had established.
They weren’t able to do it on their own, so they lured first Syria (1976) and then Israel to help, culminating in the 1982 Israeli invasion that ousted Yasser Arafat and the PLO.
Now the LF are facing another state within the state, this time run by Hezbollah. It was the only faction authorized to hold arms after the 1989 Taif Peace Agreement which ended the civil war, due to its role as “Lebanon’s defender against Israel”.
It has since built a formidable and secret military capability, considered to be much stronger than the Lebanese army, as well as a large network of social services, hospitals and other facilities.
The difference with the PLO is that Hezbollah is Lebanese. But his affiliation with Iran – he is widely seen as an Iranian delegate – lends a strong geopolitical dimension to any potential conflict.
“The Iranians and the Americans are fighting each other in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen,” said a political source. “You have to see the big picture.”
While Hezbollah is deeply committed to Iran, there is a widely held, albeit undocumented belief that LF leader Samir Geagea is receiving substantial funding from Iran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia.
Cost of war
One factor against a major flare-up is the obvious imbalance of power, underscored by Hassan Nasrallah’s pointless reminder to Samir Geagea that he could field 100,000 fighters.
Everyone knows that Hezbollah could make its way to every corner of the country in a matter of days.
- Who are the Hezbollah?
But this would mean engaging the movement in a never-ending internal war, which would see it facing not only Samir Geagea’s LF, but also the Sunnis and perhaps the Druze.
Invading Christian areas would destroy Hezbollah’s alliance with Samir Geagea’s Christian rivals, President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement and his powerful son-in-law Gebran Bassil, leaving it dangerously exposed.
That alliance is already under strain due to Hezbollah’s opposition to the investigation into the August 2020 port explosion, the victims of which were mainly Christian.
The clashes in Ain al-Remmaneh have already had the effect of strengthening Samir Geagea’s position in the Christian community, according to many Christian sources, and even among some Sunnis.
But by exacerbating sectarian tensions and strengthening mental and physical boundaries, they were also seen as serving the leadership of both sides, rallying the faithful ahead of the early parliamentary elections scheduled for March 27.
The economic collapse of Lebanon, heavily blamed on the greed and corruption of the political class, had brought the leaders to public discredit across the board, with Hezbollah without exception.
“There is no solution in Lebanon that involves the elimination of Hezbollah other than an all-out war, which the Lebanese cannot wage,” said a Christian veteran of the civil war.
“Hezbollah is there and we have to live with it. The best thing is to give full power to the Lebanese army and strengthen the opposition to Hezbollah in parliament. They have to adapt to a political compromise.”
This is a tall order. In the meantime, the best the Lebanese can hope for is that the foreseen future incidents will be contained and the living conditions perhaps slightly improved by the fragile new government.
The worst can’t bear to think.
Jim Muir moved to Lebanon in January 1975 and dealt with the civil war from the very beginning, mostly as a BBC Middle East correspondent.
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