Can Beirut Be Paris Again? Freed from Syrian domination, Lebanon’s capital could shine

Before it became the poster child for urban disaster areas in the mid-1970s, Beirut was called the Paris of the Middle East. With its French Mandate architecture, its world-class cuisine, its fashionable and liberated women, its multitude of churches on the Christian side of town, and its thousand-year-old ties to France, it fit the part. Then civil war broke out in 1975 and tore city and country to pieces. More than 100,000 people were killed during a period when Lebanon’s population was under 4 million. The war sucked in powers from the Middle East and beyond—the Palestine Liberation Organization, Israel, Iran, France, the Soviet Union, the United States—but no country inflicted more damage than Syria, ruled by the Assad family’s Arab Socialist Baath Party. Today, the shoe is on the other foot. Syria, not Lebanon, is suffering the horrors of civil war. With Syria’s Bashar al-Assad possibly on his way out—or at least too busy to export mayhem to his neighbors—will Beirut have the chance to regain its lost glory?

A war-shattered Holiday Inn
A war-shattered Holiday Inn

Before 1975, when Beirut was still Paris, Syria was the unstable place in the region. Indeed, it was among the least stable countries on earth. During the 1950s and early 1960s, military coups came as often as Christmas. Not until the Baath Party seized power in 1963 did Syria settle down, and then only because the Baathists erected a Soviet-style police state that terrorized the population into passivity.

Hafez al-Assad, father of the current ruler, took power in 1970, and he cleverly figured out that Syria’s inherent instability could be exported to Lebanon. Roughly 10 percent of Lebanon’s population is Druze, with the rest divided evenly among Christians, Sunni Muslims, and Shiite Muslims. The Christians have historical ties to the West dating back to the Crusades; the Sunnis are backed by much of the Arab world (which, outside Iraq, is overwhelmingly Sunni); the Shiites’ patron is Iran, one of only a handful of Shiite-majority countries in the world. Lebanon’s three main communities agreed long ago that the best way to prevent one group from lording it over the others was to have a weak central government and share power. But a country that was small, divided by nature, and weak by design was easy prey for its totalitarian neighbor.

True, Syria didn’t start the Lebanese war, which was sparked in Beirut by clashes between Palestinian and Christian militias. But the Syrian army invaded Lebanon during the war and became one of the most destructive belligerents there. After the war ended in 1990, the Syrian military continued to occupy Lebanon until 2005, when the Cedar Revolution forced it to withdraw. Even then, Damascus could lay waste to Lebanon from the inside via its violent local proxies: the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, Amal (another party), and especially the Hezbollah militia. The Taif Agreement at the conclusion of hostilities had required the disarmament of every militia in Lebanon, but Assad’s army, which oversaw the disarmament, left Hezbollah in place—partly because it was a useful ally in Syria’s war against Israel and partly because it could be used to subdue Beirut if Damascus’s new vassal got a little too uppity.

Hezbollah served both purposes after the Syrian army’s withdrawal. It started a 2006 war with Israel that cost more than 1,000 Lebanese citizens their lives, created more than a million refugees (almost 25 percent of the country), and shattered infrastructure from the north to the south. And though Hezbollah and its local allies lost the most recent election, they’re in charge of the government anyway, thanks to a slow-motion takeover that began with their invasion and brief occupation of West Beirut in 2008.

So it hardly mattered that the Lebanese managed to evict the Syrians in the Cedar Revolution; Bashar al-Assad, who took power in Syria in 2000, could still rule from afar. But he won’t be able to do that if he loses the war that’s currently raging in Syria. The Free Syrian Army is battling alongside the al-Qaida-linked terrorists of Jabhat al-Nusra to topple the Assad regime, which has already lost control of huge swaths of the country. The conflict is partly sectarian: the Assad family belongs to Syria’s heterodox Alawite minority, while the rebels, part of the Sunni Muslim majority, are getting money and guns from wealthy Sunni Arabs in the Arabian Peninsula. But the war has inevitably dragged in regional politics. Israel has launched air strikes against Syrian depots to prevent weapons from being transferred to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Russia and Iran are backing Assad to the end, as is Hezbollah. At the time of this writing, the United States has pledged to increase aid to the rebels, though it’s not clear what exactly that aid will be. In a word, Syria has become Lebanonized.

That’s not a brand-new development for the country. “Syria before Assad was a playground of foreign intervention,” says Martin Kramer of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Hafez al-Assad turned Syria into a regional player in its own right—occupying Lebanon, running his own Palestinian factions, and enabling Hezbollah. But now Syria has reverted to what it was before: a jumble of clashing interest groups and resentful sects pitted against one another, all seeking foreign backers who might tip the balance in their favor. In the long view, fragmented weakness may be Syria’s default condition, and the Syria of Assad père an aberration.”

The obvious analogy is Iraq: both countries were formed as a result of French and British negotiations after the Ottoman Empire’s defeat in World War I. “Historically, there was never a state called Syria,” says Eli Khoury, the CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi Levant and cofounder of the Lebanon Renaissance Foundation. Syria, like Iraq, was wired together with a minority-backed Baath Party dictatorship. Neither country is an internally coherent nation like Egypt, Tunisia, or Morocco. “Syria and Iraq have so far only been governed by ruthless centralized iron,” Khoury points out. “It’s otherwise hard to make sense of these places.” Or as Jean-Pierre Katrib, a Beirut-based university lecturer and human rights activist, puts it: “I don’t see Syria as heading toward transition. I see Syria as heading toward disintegration.”

If that happens, how will it affect Beirut? To answer that question, it helps to understand this city’s strange ethnic geography. During the long civil war, Beirut split apart into mutually hostile cantons. Christian militias squared off against Palestinian and Sunni ones across a gash known as the Green Line, which ripped through the center of the city on a northwest-by-southeast axis. To this day, the city remains divided along that line: the eastern half is almost entirely Christian, the western half predominantly Sunni. And the southern suburbs are all but monolithically Shiite.

The Christian half of the city sustained less damage during the war than the Sunni half did, and it is consequently the more French-looking of the two today. Its culture is also more French, since many Lebanese Christians feel a political, cultural, and religious kinship with France and the French language that Lebanese Muslims do not. The western side of the city is more culturally Arab and also, since so many of its buildings were flattened during the war, architecturally bland. Though the Sunnis there are more liberal and cosmopolitan than most Sunni Arabs elsewhere, their culture, religion, language, and loyalties are, for the most part, in sync with those of their more conservative Middle Eastern neighbors.

Still, East and West Beirut seem nearly identical if you compare them with the southern suburbs. Collectively known as the dahiyeh, which means “suburb” in Arabic, they are Hezbollah’s de facto capital. The central government has no writ there. Hezbollah provides the security, schools, hospitals, and other public services. Drive down the streets, and you’ll see the flags of Hezbollah and Iran but rarely the flag of Lebanon. The dahiyeh looks and feels like a ramshackle Iranian satellite, even though you can walk there from central Beirut in an hour. Once known as the “belt of misery,” the area is still a slum. Most of the buildings are 12-story apartment towers built without permits or attention to aesthetics of any kind—especially the French kind. There are places in East Beirut where, if you try hard enough and squint, you could fool yourself into believing that you’re in France. You could never get away with that in the dahiyeh.

When armed conflict breaks out, the dividing lines among these three parts of Beirut are the flash points. At one of these, a half-mile south of the city center along the old Green Line, is what’s commonly called the Yellow House, or what’s left of it. This once-beautiful row of apartments and shops was the posh home of some of Beirut’s finest before the civil war. Now it’s a bullet-pocked stone skeleton. Though it’s finally being renovated after decades of sitting in ruin, the chewed-up facade will be encased in glass and only the interior refurbished. The building will become a war museum, its husk preserved as a constant reminder that urban civil war is one of the worst catastrophes that the human race can inflict on itself.

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