Monday 18 Jan 2021 | 18:43 | SYDNEY
Monday 18 Jan 2021 | 18:43 | SYDNEY

Saudi money and Syrian frogs


Rodger Shanahan


18 June 2012 13:47

Once again, in the space of a day, Lebanon has provided the glorious contrasts and inconsistencies that make it such a compelling and yet frustrating place to research, visit, or have any contact with. 

During lunch at a lovely seaside restaurant in Beirut on a lazy summer Saturday afternoon, weighty discussions on the future of regimes and the capability and intent of domestic militias were wedged between serves of seafood against a backdrop of Beirut's glitterati promenading in the summer's latest fashions.

Over the mountains is the prosperous and beautiful Christian Biqa' town of Zahle (pictured), where grilled Syrian frog is a local delicacy (it tastes a bit like chicken). There I was told that families are buying land on behalf of relatives in Syria to provide a bolthole for the 'day after' should the Sunnis come to power in Syria. If the Syrian Christians do follow the path of those in Iraq and emigrate, it will further denude the Middle East of its essential Christian character. 

To top off my Beirut experience, my 2.30am taxi ride involved two very bold diversion, either to bypass tyre burning Shi'a youths who had blocked the main and secondary roads to the airport to protest the kidnapping of 11 Shi'a pilgrims in Syria or because of power blackouts to the poor Shi'a areas near the airport; no one was sure or really cared.

While this visit gave me pause to rethink some of my views regarding the future of the Shi'a community, there is little certainty about the relationship between Lebanon and Syria, other than a desire to ensure Syrian troubles don't spill over into Lebanon. For a feel of the disparity in opinions, I can offer the following frustratingly contradictory views:

Northern Lebanon

  • The Sunnis in northern Lebanon are looking to make the area a Sunni canton, in the way the south is for the Shi'a, Mount Lebanon is for the Christians and the Chouf is for the Druze. This is being abetted, unwittingly or not, by the injection of Saudi money to selected Salafists.
  • There is no way northern Lebanon can be cantonised as it is too ethnically diverse and what passes for a Sunni militia is not up to the task.

Syrian incursions into Lebanon

  • The incursions show the Syrians still believe Lebanon is part of Greater Syria, which is why they will never consider Lebanon truly independent.
  • Lebanese Sunnis and weapons are flowing into Syria; they are simply doing the job the Lebanese military is either incapable of or (until recently) has not been asked to do. There are also 43 spots in the undemarcated border where Lebanon and Syria disagree about ownership, so what the Lebanese consider their territory in many cases the Syrians don't.

The future of Syria

  • From people who have contact with Syrian officials: the regime is hard and unified; the army is large and much better equipped than the opposition, and will be able to outlast them.
  • From people who don't have any contact with Syrian officials: the fall of Assad is simply a matter of when, not if.

What it means for the Sunnis

  • According to Sunnis: they feel empowered by the prospect of a Syrian opposition victory. This will put a lid on Shi'a ambitions in Lebanon and mean the majority sect can once again rule in Syria. Without the Syrian support it is used to, Hizbullah will be brought back to the pack politically; this can only be good for Lebanon.
  • According to non-Sunnis: Sa'ad Hariri's unwillingness or inability to lead the Sunni community has created a dangerous power vacuum which is being filled by cashed-up Salafist clerics who are winning the streets away from the secular leadership. Emboldened by the success of the largely Sunni Syrian opposition and still hurting from the humiliation at the hands of the Shi'a in 2008, it may be that the Sunnis, not the Shi'a, will be the ones who upset the delicate political balance in Lebanon. 

I could go on but this gives you a flavour of why predicting events here is so fraught with danger. Those with good links to the Syrian regime are usually biased observers so it is difficult to get an objective view of events. On top of that is the normal Arab predisposition to conspiracy theories, which has reached an art form in Lebanon as it allows blame to be sheeted home to 'others' for their inability to make decisions for the good of the country.

I did find a relatively uniform disdain for Saudi Arabia (not surprising) and for Qatar for interfering without regard to any second-order effects on the region in general or on Lebanon in particular. There was a feeling that, while people understood the Qatari desire to be a regional 'player', this intercession with regard to Syria was ideological; on more than one occasion it was expressed to me that Saudi Arabia and Qatar are simply different types of Salafis when it comes down to it.

What is certain is that the outcome in Syria will have consequences for the entire region. We may not know what they are at the moment, but I haven't come away from this leg of the trip thinking that they will be good. 

Photo by Flickr user andrew.