There can be no doubt that the world heard the bombs that exploded outside the Iranian embassy in Beirut on Tuesday morning, a tragic and terrifying event that killed dozens and made international headlines. But the world had largely ignored the warnings that forecast the detonations.
The first of those warnings would have sounded like a threat to members of the international community, had it come from another country.
The world risks “losing a major ally,” Lebanon’s Minister of Social Affairs Wael Abu Faour told diplomats in Geneva on Sept. 30, stressing that Lebanon has been overwhelmed by the arrival of one million Syrian refugees and has received little but broken promises.
The trouble for Mr. Faour is that Lebanon isn’t a major anything. It’s a country of four million people still struggling to recover from a brutal 15-year-long civil war that ended two decades ago, and that is now host to a refugee population more than a quarter of its own size. Lebanon can’t barter with much oil or much military might; however, it can – and did – warn the international community that its government, infrastructure, and sectarian balance might very well collapse, pulling other countries in the region into the orbit of conflict.
In an interview in October, Lebanon’s representative for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Canadian Ninette Kelley, said that she understands the Lebanese government’s extreme frustration. Having been in Lebanon when bombs exploded in Beirut and Tripoli this summer, and having urged the international community to “share Lebanon’s burden,” she was more despairing than ever, and issued a warning that she’s issued many times before.
“This cannot continue without grave repercussions here and elsewhere, in terms of this country being rendered impoverished and tensions arising more frequently than we’ve seen in the past,” she said. Did she mean civil war, we asked?
“The threat of internal conflict in Lebanon is always a real and pressing one,” she replied. “You add this [refugee] dynamic to it and it makes it a tinder box.”
More recently, political leaders in Lebanon have predicted that Hezbollah’s widely-publicized involvement in Syria would lead to more deadly clashes in Lebanon. On Monday, Nov. 18, Samir Geagea – the head of Lebanon’s second largest Christian party – told reporters that “Hezbollah’s participation in fighting in Syria has led to the Iraqization of Lebanon.” He suggested that Lebanon would become rife with suicide bombers.
He didn’t even have to wait 24 hours to be proven correct.
An al-Qaeda affiliated group called the Abdullah Azzam Brigades claimed responsibility for Tuesday’s twin suicide bombing and threatens more attacks unless Hezbollah withdraws from Syria.
Whether or not they are opposed to Hezbollah – and as a well-organized political party that provides critical social support and protection to impoverished Shia communities in Lebanon, many are not opposed to Hezbollah – most people here agree that the bombings are the latest spillover from the war in Syria. The war has spead to Lebanon through two channels, each exacerbating the other: the first of these is related to sectarian conflict, the second to an overwhelmed system. The country has been flooded with more refugees than its sectarian politics can contain or its social and economic infrastructure can support.
First, Syrian refugees, mostly Sunni, have sought shelter in a country with a history of sectarian violence and a wary Shia population. Many Sunni groups – both local and refugee – are incensed by the Iran-funded, Lebanon-based Shia militia’s participation in the war. A car bomb in August in south Beirut targeted a neighbourhood of Hezbollah supporters, and a Syrian Sunni Islamist group claimed responsibility. Later that month, the bombing of two Sunni mosques killed 47 people, thought to be the work of an Alawite (Shia) group that supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Second, Lebanon can longer support both its own people and one million refugees. Daily, thousands of Syrians cross the border and make temporary homes in Lebanon that will likely not be temporary at all. The education system is so taxed that most Syrian kids can’t get into school and many Lebanese families are withdrawing their own kids from school; the health care system is just as strained, with 40 per cent of primary health care visits coming from Syrian refugees and cases of serious diseases rising.
Lebanon is being pulled ever more forcefully between these twin points of tension. The more Sunni refugees arrive in a country with sectarian tensions, the more the country’s infrastructure is strained, the more sectarian tensions rise.
Anyone can hear a bomb go off, but it’s infinitely more important to listen to the threats that precede the bomb. If they’re heeded, lives may be saved. Lebanon is packed full with highly combustible sectarian tensions and system failures. It may not be too late to diffuse some of the conflict through massive and immediate aid. If the international community fails to do so, however, the reverberations will not only be heard in Lebanon, but throughout the region and the world.
Shannon Gormley and Drew Gough are Canadian journalists currently based in Beirut.