Rami Khouri on Syria, Igniting Violence in Beirut

On Thursday a car bomb rocked Dahiyeh, Beirut’s southern suburbs and a stronghold of Hezbollah.

Written by Susannah George Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

The blast killed at least five people and injured more than 60. It’s the second such attack in the Lebanese capital in less than a week; last Friday a car bomb went off in the city’s downtown killing a former Lebanese minister and seven others. 

While the Lebanese government’s official stance on Syria is one of neutrality, the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah is openly fighting in Syria on the side of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. To make sense of the violence in Lebanon we spoke with Rami Khouri, the Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. 

Syria Deeply: What do you see happening on the ground in Lebanon?

Rami Khouri: An escalation in political violence, targeted bombings and killings… These attacks are more troubling and more politically significant because they are targeting areas that have been off limits before.

Nobody was attacking Dahiyeh, nobody was attacking the Iranian embassy, nobody was attacking the massive real estate developments in West Beirut.

Now it’s open season and people are attacking all these targets. What’s not clear is who’s doing the killing. its possible that these are retaliatory attacks by different people [within] March 14 or March 8 [the main rival camps in Lebanese politics]. Or it could be that there is a third party. For instance the Salafist militant terrorist groups. It’s possible they’re attacking both sides to create turmoil, instigate sectarian tensions and create chaos so that they can set up their fantasy state like they’re trying to do in other parts of the region.

So we just don’t know who’s doing these bombings. Hopefully the investigations by the government will clarify some of these issues, but for the moment it’s all speculative. But what’s clear is that there are rising tensions and fear and vulnerabilities. The fear is that this could be part of an escalating ideological war that is spread out all across the Middle East.

SD: We often hear the violence in Lebanon described as a “spillover” of violence from Syria, but some argue that’s an inaccurate term — that really what we’re seeing are Lebanese groups exploiting the violence next door for their own political ends. What do you think?

RK: The situation is that three separate conflicts have fused into one: there’s one inside Iraq, one inside Syria and one inside Lebanon. You’ve got the Lebanese fighting each other in Lebanon, Syrians in Syria and Iraqis in Iraq and all three of them are now crossing each other’s borders and these three conflicts have meshed into a single battlefield.

So if its spillover, its spillover in three different directions, over three different borders. It’s a far more complicated and older dynamic than simply recent spillover from Syria.

SD: What should we expect to see in the coming weeks and months?

RK: It’s hard to tell, I have no idea whats going to happen. It depends how people react. If people react intelligently, rationally, they will realize that Lebanon is [currently] careening into a catastrophe.

The problems in Lebanon are partly based inside the country, disagreements among political and ideological groups and partly they are the consequence of pressures of interests and forces from outside the country. There are lots of different external forces who play themselves out inside the country and they connect with domestic protagonists who’ve been fighting each other for many decades.

How these different groups inside the country come to their senses and the political leadership starts to put an end to this violence and chaos is something that we’ll only find out in the months ahead. They may not. They may just continue like this and allow the situation to get out of hand.

They’re not going to get back to a civil war thats for sure, they’ve made that clear. But you can have something thats not a civil war but is also catastrophic, which is the slow disintegration based on political violence, terror, chaos, uncertainty, fear, vulnerability, deteriorating economic conditions.

I think the Lebanese are smart enough to realize that and hopefully do something about it, but there’s no guarantee. We’ll just have to wait and see.

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