The revolution derailed: sectarianism in Lebanon and Syria


The Ghosts of Martyrs’ Square is a record of a revolution, the mass demonstrations in 2005 that, combined with effective pressure from the UN, were able to force the Syrian army to end its 30-year presence in Lebanon. The protests began when Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister who had overseen the reconstruction of Beirut, was killed by a massive car bomb planted by Syrian intelligence agents; his critical stance toward Syria, combined with his immense popularity, made him a natural target of a state-sponsored assassination. Instead of its intended purpose, reminding the politically minded that dissent could be suicidal, the assassination became a catalyst for popular revolt, what the foreign press would dub the Cedar Revolution, and the Lebanese themselves, the independence intifada. That revolution promised much more than a return to sovereignty; the Syrian withdrawal became linked, in the expectations of the protesters, with a new idea of their country, transcending the dominant divisions that had marred its history. The revolt against Assad’s forces contained, or seemed to contain, the beginning of a larger revolt against Lebanon’s past.

The country’s diversity, young argues, had also long been unique in preserving a “paradoxical liberalism”; competing collective identities, even if causing tension, had led to a social contract based on mutual self-restraint: no a particular sect, or the political movement represent it, could afford to imperil peace by seeking excessive power. This pragmatic understanding is at the basis of Lebanon’s democracy- which has never purely democratic, in the sense of being majoritarian, and which, in the last few decades, has been at times dangerously fragile; but which is not Young argues, the political failure its often reduced to.

Prewar Lebanon, with its ‘national pact’ between communities, has succeeded for several decades where most of the region has failed: in establishing a working balance between stability and freedom. It was that model, endangered during the civil war and further suspended during the decades of Syrian occupation, that the 2005 revolution had promised to revive- and which Assad, through his ally Hezbollah, would try to threaten and destabilize in the coming years.

Lebanon’s pluralist reality, the ‘open spaces’ left by the tense balance of different communities, has long made it distinct from its neighbors- sometimes freer, as in the 1960s, when Beirut was a safe haven for dissidents from across the region; and at other times, more dangerous, as in the decade-long civil war. But the very cause of this difference- a need to ensure an equilibrium between mutually suspicious groups- highlights a glaring similarity it shares with its eastern neighbor.

Hafez Assad’s Syria, with divisions as deep as Lebanon’s, had for several decades suffered the dubious stability of dictatorship; and in Lebanon’s hellish decade of civil war, the contrast for many a skeptic had been irresistible: the failed, democratic state, losing almost complete control to warring militias, and the strong, if bloody state, saving its neighbor from self-destruction.

Bashar Assad invokved this contrast in April 2007, in a meeting with UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon. Summarizing Lebanon’s history in the darkest terms, marred by “divisions and confessionalism…anchored for more than 3000 years”, he said its “most peaceful years” had been those under Syrian occupation- and in a warning mixing fact and threat, asserting Syria’s continued influence on Lebanon’s affairs, said: “we are in the eye of the cyclone. you will need to keep in contact with us.”

The 3-month intifada, starting in late February occurred almost two years after the fall of Saddam Hussein. From the sectarian bloodshed that has since disfigured Iraq, different observers have drawn radically different conclusions. Opponents of the war seized it, almost opportunistically, to prove the notion of democracy in Iraq had been close to utopian, and that, as bush senior had realized and his son forgotten, middle eastern dictatorships were a necessary evil. but to scholars like Fouad Ajami and Kanan Makiya, viewing post-Saddam Iraq through the lens of its recent history, it was clear sectarian hatred had been nurtured, not contained, by the regime, that coexistence between communities, which sectarian terrorism imperils, cannot be left to depend on the violent repression of those communities; that stability, if not democratic, will sow the seeds own destruction.

The Ghost of Martyrs’ Square is a record of both success and failure.
The success- Syria’s departure- was a product of circumstance. Hariri’s murder and the protests it spawned had entered a global spotlight, provoking demands by the UN, and some of its most powerful member states. Without this fortuitous combination, a popular revolt in Lebanon and its vocal endorsement by world leaders, the independence intifada would’ve likely failed. Assad’s hands were tied in Lebanon because the world was watching: UN resolution 1559, passed a year before, had deemed the Syrian occupation illegal and called for its swift end. President Bush, in a momentous change in American policy, had linked success in the war on terror to the spread of democracy; in the peaceful rallies in Beirut, he saw the freedom agenda vindicated. French president Chirac, a friend of Hariri, was just as vocal, so much so that Emile Lahoud, the Lebanese president handpicked by Syrian authorities, would accuse him of interfering in Lebanon’s internal affairs- which meant contesting Syria’s role in Lebanon’s internal affairs. These never amounted to, or included the threat of intervention, but they gave Assad a stark choice between retreating and starting a bloodbath.

On April 27, the Syrian army withdrew from Lebanon. This did not translate to the end of Syrian influence. One of the largest political parties in this new democracy, the ‘party of God’ sponsored by Iran and Syria, maintained an armed militia completely autonomous from the national army; in much of southern Lebanon and entire neighborhoods of Beirut, it used its political muscle to form a rival state, which the cautious national government has accepted as an indefinite fait accompli- the cost of doing otherwise would be a new civil war.

After Syrian withdrawal, and the 2005 elections, three crucial events illustrated Hezbollah’s role in the new Lebanon, revealing both the extent, and limits, of its popular support. First, in summer 2006, it launched a doomed war against Israel; later that year, on December 6, in the midst of a bitter disagreement with the new prime minister Sionari, the party thousands of its supporters into the streets, with the goal of toppling his government; these protests, largely peaceful, acquired a confrontational symbolism, converging on the same spot- Martyrs’ Square where the anti-Syrian protests had begun a year before.

The protests were largely interpreted through the lens of class, Hezbollah’s Shia supporters coming mostly from impoverished suburbs, camping in the prosperous heart of a city that seemed to still exclude them. There is truth in this, young insists, but not the entire story. Hezbollah’s popularity has complicated roots, a country where power and wealth had been split between Christians and Sunnis, the Shia community had been, and continued to be marginalized. Hezbollah’s real strength was not political but military; by refusing to disarm, as the UN demanded along with Lebanon’s new government, it promised that political isolation would be a thing of the past- if Hezbollah, as a party, could not be ignored, then neither could the Shia, as a community. This practical promise, more than its radical ideology, helped get the party of god where it is today.

But the source of Hezbollah’s appeal was not the essence of its identity; its goals and actions were grounded in a particular political vision, based on the virtues of self-sacrifice and perpetual struggle. Then eight months later, in a much more brazen attempt to topple Siniora, it set up makeshift roadblocks across Beirut, evoking the capitals’ division during the civil war. The roadblocks lasted a few days, before Hezbollah called it off. Its main sponsor, Iran wanted to cause trouble for Sionoria, seen as pro-American, but it did not want sectarian tensions to spark a full-scale war. Hezbollah’s other main sponsor, young speculates, wanted exactly that- a sectarian bloodbath in Lebanon would prove the country could not govern itself, and would offer a perfect pretext for a new Syrian occupation.

These three shows of political force could not have been more different; a full-scale war, which it labeled a divine victory; weeks of peaceful protest, echoing the tactics and imagery, though not the ideals, of the Cedar Revolution; and a day of violent posturing, setting up roadblocks and bringing the city to a standstill. None of these dramatic actions met their purported goals- after months of disastrous ‘resistance’ against the Israeli air force, Hezbollah was forced to remove its militia from southern Lebanon, making it nearly impossible to threaten Israeli cities. Having lost its battle with Israel, it turned to domestic rivals, but neither protests, or roadblocks toppled Siniora’s administration. If the optimism of the intifada was compromised by Hezbollah’s actions, with war and political crisis leading to myriad disappointments, the singular victory of 2005- a sovereign, democratic Lebanon- remained more durable than Iran and Syria had expected and wanted.

Another dramatic test would come in early 2008. In its most aggressive attempt yet to assert power over its rivals, Hezbollah seized turned its armed might on its fellow citizens, seizing all of West Beirut from government forces and their supporters. The March 14 coalition called it a ‘bloody coup’, part of an imperial ploy by the party’s Iranian sponsors, to “extend Iran’s each to the mediterranean”. By late may, the government had accepted a bitter compromise, allowing a new cabinet to form in which Hezbollah would have an effective veto. Siniora was replaced by a new president, Michel Suleiman, not aligned with Hezbollah but seen as more neutral. It was a case of thuggish confrontation between militia and state, in which an undemocratic party used the fragility of the system to its advantage. It also shed interesting light on the the priorities of Hezbollah’s rivals. Faced with an armed takeover of half the capital city, it realized responding with force, or even with inflexibility, would play directly into Hezbollah’s hands, endangering the tense peace that Syria- and its clients- aimed to disrupt.

Moving from the Cedar revolution to its tense aftermath, Young contrasts a hopeful revolution with the ruinous effects, of sectarianism. That contrast, essential to assessing the Cedar revolution, is just as relevant today in examining how Syria’s war is affecting Lebanon- and how, in failing to assist the democratic forces in Syria, our own government has contributed to the rise of extremists, whose blatant embrace of sectarian hatred has transformed the nature of the conflict.

The murder of Muhammad Chatah, in the final week of 2013, signaled the continued ability of the Syrian regime to strike at its critics- not just at home but across the border in Lebanon. If his grip on his country has been challenged since 2011, Assad’s influence in Lebanon has grown stronger, not weaker, thanks to the central role of Hezbollah in defending his regime. Chatah, a banker and economist, had been active in the Future Movement, founded by Rafiq Hariri before his murder in 2005, and had served as a close adviser to president Sionara. Chatah’s murder was followed by another gruesome atrocity, a bomb in southern Beirut that left five civilians dead; planted in Haret Hreik, a poor neighborhood known as a Hezbollah stronghold, it fulfilled a brutal threat by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the most extreme jihadist group active in northern Syria – that in retaliation for Hezbollah’s support for Assad, it would launch attacks in Lebanon itself. Chatah when alive, embodied everything the jihadists are against, but when murdered, he became a Sunni martyr and a pretext for another crime.

The attack in Haret Hreik did more than accentuate the sectarian spillover of Syria’s war; it also revealed a growing rift in the Sunni community of Lebanon- between the liberal, conciliatory legacy of Rafiq Hariri, and the violent jihadist movements expressing the opposite values, and the opposite goals. Already in the summer of 2012, the warning signs of such a divide were appearing in the northern city of Tripoli, where a mostly Sunni neighborhood, Bab-Al-Tabbaneh, borders the mostly Alawite neighborhood of Jabal Mohsen. Worrying development in Syria, where the moderate opposition was starting to lose ground to Islamists, had quick and bitter repercussions in both communities. The Alawites militia was linked to the Arabic democratic party, a pro-Assad group embracing the ideology of Ba’athism, conceived in the early years of the Syrian occupation; the Sunnis militia in turn, was dominated by an extremist cleric who described Alawites as “snakes in the grass of Tripoli”.

A BBC Arabic documentary, My Neighbor, My Enemy, records the months of sniper warfare between the two neighborhoods- and the changing discourse in both. The walls in Jabel Mohsen are plastered with photographs of Assad, while a Free Syrian army flag flies in Bab al-Tabbaneh- ironically accompanied by a poster of Saddam Hussein, head of another Ba’athist dictatorship, albeit dominated by Sunnis. At Lord of the Martyrs mosque in bab-al-Tabbaneh, a sermon frames the war in Syria in religious, not political terms: the Ba’ath party has “insulted God” by making a holy figure of Assad.

This sermon was given in the tense context of Tripoli, but an identical message has been spreading far from any sectarian battleground- in Paris, Chicago and London, via websites and videos. Must watch- Emotional and powerful, shouts the first hit on youtube for the search “Free Syria”. The description, in all caps, begins “please spread this video for the sake of Allah.” The uploader’s sensational name, WakeUptheUmmah, invokes not the country of Syria but a global Islamic community, a term used in different contexts, to mean dramatically different things. Ummah can mean congregation, a close-knit community of worshippers; it can also mean, to political Islamists, the basis of a future state, the reborn Islamic caliphate for which al Qaeda is fighting and killing.

The video shows Assad’s shabiha, infamous for exceptional cruelty, forcing a captured prisoner to say “there is no God but Bashar”- a sacrilegious substitute for the Islamic testimony of faith, “There is no God but God”. The symbolic importance of this humiliation cannot be underestimated. From Stalin’s Soviet Union to Kim Jong Un’s North korea, most modern tyrants have seen the advantage of becoming Gods, demanding, not just a lack of dissent but an expression of worship from their citizens. In this general desire, Assad is hardly exceptional. But religious devotion remains, in Syria, is not just a central part of life, it has been, for several decades, a central part of political life. Secular dissidents have shown a lonely variety heroism; Riad al-Turk, a former communist turned democrat, is one of the longest-serving political prisoners in the world; but the most effective opposition was the Muslim Brotherhood, and the most effective meeting point for activists was the local mosque- which is why so many of the protests in 2011, when Islamist rhetoric was still rare, started in front of mosques and were held after Friday prayers. By combining literal brutality with symbolic sacrilege, the Syrian regime is giving the jihadists, a PR victory.

The sectarian reality in Syria- in which an Alawite dynasty ruled a majority Sunni country- is not as simple and linear as often assumed. There are Alawites and Christians who have supported the opposition from the beginning, and Sunni businessman and clerics who have stayed with Assad through his darkest hour. most Alawite villages- with the exception of Assad, senior’s birthplace- have remained impoverished and destitute. but the simplified perception of a clash between Sunnis and Alawites, the Islamist narrative of heretics oppressing true muslims, has become an ideological weapon for jihadist recruiters.

This narrative has transformed the struggle against Assad- from a national struggle against dictatorship to a globalized struggle against a regime perceived as heretical.. A popular rebellion, rooted in Syria’s own history, has been converted into the latest front in a global holy war.

By exploiting communal fears to foster politicized hatred, jihadists in Lebanon have gained unprecedented influence, challenging not just Hezbollah but the moderate Sunni Future movement. “Paradoxical liberalism” is now in retreat, overshadowed by the rhetoric of communal loyalty. The same is becoming true, with yet crueler consequences, in Syria itself.

Legitimate concerns about the rise of extremists are not an excuse for American or European inaction; they are the glaring indictment of where that inaction has already led. Assad and al Qaeda are enemies with a common enemy. They are both desperate to bring about, whatever the price in suffering, an irreversible defeat of Syria’s democrats. In April 2014, as jihadists expanded their influence in northern Syria, Ayman al-Zawahiri issued a demand to the opposition- that they create an Islamic emirate in rebel-held areas. The political head of the FSA, Luay al-Meqdad, issued a curt and decisive reply. “The Syrian people launched the revolution, not Ayman al-Zawahiri and al-Qaeda. Therefore, he and others have no right to impose their state on Syrians. George Sabra, head of the Syrain national Council, expressed a similar conviction: “Al Qaeda does not represent any component of the Syrian people. What al Zawahiri and others in al Qaeda are calling for has no place in Syria.”

But al Qaeda has already acquired a place in Syria; it controls large swathes of land along the Turkish border, because unlike the FSA and the Syrian Revolutionary Front, the radical Islamists in Syria have the weapons they need to win battles. Not arming moderate rebels has empowered their dangerous competitors in the Al-Nusra front and ISIS. The danger for the west is long-term and far-off- that someday, years or decades from now, the Europeans fighting in Syria will return to their hometowns, more brainwashed than when they left and ready to kill their fellow citizens. The danger for Syria and its neighbors is much more immediate: acting on a brutal ideology that sees Alawites and Shia as heretics, they are turning a struggle for freedom into a choice between two forms of terror. Much of the blame for this can be divided between Assad and al-Zawahiri, but America’s non-interventionism has not helped.

Previous Articles

Islamophobia on the left: Jeremy Scahill on the Balkans


Fahrenheit 99: Michael Moore, Kosovo and Iraq


Dishonest fiction: history and omissions


The real lesson from Iraq


A coup by any other name


Assad’s victory, America’s shame


A plea against deadly caution


“Hardening attitudes and narrowing possibilities”


“The whole world has failed us.”


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