Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 June 2019

Like 1980s Lebanon, Syria faces a lost decade of war

What lies ahead of millions of Syrians is what lay ahead of the Lebanese in the early 1980s: decades of wandering, of moving from one country to another, of seeking a new life away from the war

Hizbollah, says Saad Hariri, will drag Lebanon into "the Syrian fire". Mr Hariri, Lebanon's former prime minister, is right about the effect, but wrong about the time-frame.

Lebanon is already involved. The Syrian conflict is now a regional war, stretching from Qamishli in the Kurdish far north-east of Syria, on the border with Turkey, all the way down to the southern Lebanese city of Sidon, on the Mediterranean. It may not-yet-be one theatre, but the whole region is linked to the war.

When historians come to write the history of the Syrian conflict - the Syrian civil war - they will divide the uprising into phases of what became a long war.

The latest of those phases started in May, when Hizbollah's leader Hassan Nasrallah announced that his fearsome group had entered the conflict on the side of the Assad regime. That was the point when the conflict, which had previously been geographically contained, became a regional one.

This makes the Syrian civil war remarkably different to most of the previous conflicts that have torn through the Middle East.

Since the shattering of the Ottoman empire and the drawing of ahistorical borders across the region, the Arab world has rarely been at peace. The strait-jacket of straight lines could not contain the myriad religions and regions built-up over millennia.

What the Middle East nations, and outside powers like the French, British and Americans, have tried to do therefore, with each successive conflict, is contain it, cauterise the wound so that the blood does not spill over on to neighbours.

This has worked surprisingly well. Even an enormously destructive war like the invasion of Iraq did not spill over completely, although neighbouring countries like Syria were flooded with refugees, and Jordan felt the effects of terrorism.

But it looks like Syria cannot be contained. Its effects are already felt in every country it borders. The spillover is not merely about the war in Syria having an impact in other countries - it is about the war establishing a new reality, a new political dynamic, that then drags that neighbouring country down a different path.

The country where this effect is clearest is Lebanon. The Syrian conflict has had sporadic effects, sparking clashes in the north of Lebanon, in Sidon and of course in Beirut.

But the war is also changing the political dynamic of the small country. It has changed Hizbollah's (self-declared) historic role as a protector of all Lebanese, exposing the sectarian bias beneath. And it has changed the way other political actors in Lebanon react to the group.

At the start of this month, Lebanese president Michel Sleiman raised for the first time the issue of Hizbollah's weapons, saying it was impossible for such a situation to continue and that arms ought to be the preserve of the state. That marked a change in language - and the support Mr Sleiman received from other political factions suggests that it will also mark a change in approach to Hizbollah.

The fate of Lebanon is now inextricably linked to Syria, as it has been through many decades, as it was during the Lebanese civil war.

The tragedy of Syria is that it now faces the same fate as Lebanon did in the late 1970s and early 1980s: condemned, because of inaction, because of meddling, because of history and politics, to a lost decade, to a war that has now completely consumed the society, a war, like Iraq over the last 10 years and Lebanon before it, that has touched every person in the country.

That is not an easy thing to say. Such analysis has a way of objectifying the conflict, of obscuring the reality of humanity that lies beyond the word "war".

As much as the media reports on the Syrian conflict, producing millions of words and thousands of hours of television and radio, the whole enterprise still cannot convey the harsh reality of what is happening on the ground in Syria. Fear cannot be conveyed in words or pictures; the ceaseless anxiety of parents for their children, of footsteps and gunshots in the night, the fear of starvation, the fear of violence. These things cannot be grasped by mere reporting.

But it is now clear that the Syrian civil war will not end anytime soon. Millions of Syrians have fled their homes. What lies ahead of them is what lay ahead of the Lebanese in the early 1980s: decades of wandering, of moving from country to country, of seeking a new life away from the war that now envelops their country.

It is horrific for Syrians that their once safe country has been so destroyed. And horrific for the Arab world that it must, as with every major conflict of the modern Arab world - Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq and now Syria - bear the brunt of this burden. The experience of long years of exile is one familiar to millions of Arabs. It is now the fate of millions of Syrians. The blame for that must fall in large part on all of those who watched, waited and refused to intervene.

On Twitter @FaisalAlYafai

Updated: August 20, 2013 04:00 AM