Middle East

Beirut: Eavesdropping on Syrian conflict

Supporters of Lebanon's militant Shia movement Hezbollah Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Hezbollah may have a key role to play in the fight for the future of Syria

Beirut is an essential listening post for journalists and diplomats trying to work out what is happening in Syria, and what may happen there next.

The Syrian capital, Damascus, is 85 miles (137km) from Beirut. You can still get there by taxi. For $150 (£105). But unless you are willing to submit to (or perilously dodge) the severe restrictions of Syrian intelligence, there is little point.

A common belief in Beirut is that President Bashar al-Assad and his army, supported by Russian air strikes, will move on from driving the so-called Islamic State group out of Palmyra - and defeat them all the way to their headquarters in Raqqa.

Several Beirut analysts I met believe Western nations have reached the reluctant (and so far unannounced) conclusion that the least-worst option for Syria is that Bashar al-Assad should stay on as president - supported by Russia and Iran, and by the Iran-sponsored Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah.

It is conceivable that the US, Britain and their allies will fight IS alongside Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and Bashar al-Assad - especially, I heard, "if they erase their long-held mindset that Saudi Arabia is their friend and Iran their enemy".

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Media captionHugh Sykes visits Beirut, once home to notorious British spy Kim Philby

Beirut international relations researcher Husam Matar says this is not a hypothesis, it's a fact.

"It is happening now. Western powers realise the major threat to their security and to international peace is Isis," he told me over coffee in a restaurant that's part of a Beirut funfair called Fantasy World.

Since the disasters of Iraq and Libya, and the other disappointments of the Arab Spring, Mr Matar says: "People now are concerned about stability and not about democracy or human rights. Or freedom." He emphasised: "Give us stability. Then we can have a slow process towards democracy and freedom."

Life and death in Syria

Syria: The story of the conflict

Islamic State group: The full story

Syria: Key events timeline

UN Security Council Resolution 2254, unanimously agreed in December 2015, refers to a "Syrian-led and Syrian-owned" transition, without saying whether Bashar al-Assad should be part of it.

Neither the word "President" nor the word "Assad" appears in the resolution. Under the Syrian constitution, the commander-in-chief of the Syrian Armed Forces is "Marshal Bashar al-Assad".

Image copyright Hugh Sykes
Image caption Syria solidarity with Lebanon - T-shirts with the face of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, on sale in Damascus

And there is a potentially serious flaw in the proposed road map towards democracy in Syria. The UN resolution requires elections to be held by June 2017. It doesn't say if Assad can be a candidate.

There are at least 4 million Syrian refugees in Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and Lebanon. I have met many of them over the past five years.

All of them told me there is no way they will go home to vote in elections if Assad is still in power, not even to vote against him.

With the Mukhabarat secret police still in place, they say they wouldn't feel safe - and fear they would be brutally punished for fleeing the country.

One Assad supporter in Beirut - she prefers not to be named - told me angrily that the refugees deserve to be punished.

Image copyright Hugh Sykes
Image caption The road to Damascus: Beirut is about three hours from Damascus, including laborious border crossings

"They are traitors," she said, "they should have stayed in Syria to fight Isis."

When I pointed out that most of them had fled Assad's indiscriminate barrel bombing, and not IS, she said the Syrian Air Force only used barrel bombs "because they don't have any guided missiles".

Two years ago, when Assad seemed to be losing, Hezbollah rushed to support him because his defeat was unthinkable for Lebanon right next door.

"Imagine what would happen in Syria," a journalist, Ali Rizk, counsels me, "the toppling of the government and a Taliban-like Isis regime on our doorstep. They would have moved into Lebanon. It would have been suicide for Hezbollah not to intervene."

Strong man

In Beirut's southern suburb of Chiyah, a prominent Lebanese supporter of the Syrian government, Salem Zahran, invited me to his office. On his desk, there is a photograph - taken last May - of him sitting with President Bashar al-Assad.

Image caption Salem Zahran says Assad will play a key role in the future of Syria

"I visit him a lot," he tells me.

"How was he?"

"As usual. A strong man. Talking about the departure of Bashar al-Assad is expired. Not valid any more."

But he gave me a significant clue that there may be some change. He revealed that at the Tehran embassy in Beirut, Iranian diplomats have been negotiating with opposition groups in Syria via video-conference link.

But in Beirut, there is also vehement opposition to the idea that the Ba'athist President Assad might stay on as president, at least until the end of the proposed two-year transition.

Image copyright Hugh Sykes
Image caption Fantasy World fairground, Beirut: The city remains relatively calm

No way, says Maha Yahya from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank in Beirut: "Maintaining in power the president under whose command people were barrel-bombed, and chemical weapons were used would be completely crazy, even for a transition period."

She says Assad would simply use it as a chance to deploy his extensive security apparatus to undermine any kind of reform.

"This would be a transition sanctioned by the international community, and nobody would be watching what is really going on until it blows up in their faces."

Beirut's long history as Middle East listening post:

In the 1950s, the head of the Beirut "station" for Britain's MI6 intelligence agency - together with his CIA counterpart - directed a coup in Iran which removed the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh from office.

The inducements they used included hiring mobs to riot on the streets of Tehran, bundles of dollars, and a mink coat for the Shah of Iran's sister.

Thirty years later, the CIA's station chief in Beirut, William Buckley, was kidnapped - and eventually murdered - by Hezbollah. They may have known he was a CIA man from documents seized when the US embassy in Tehran was occupied in 1979.

Numerous other Americans were kidnapped in Beirut in the 1980s.

As attempted ransom for their release, US anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles were sold to Iran - and shipped there by Israel (whose motive was to persuade Tehran to allow Iranian Jews to emigrate).

The proceeds of the arms sales were used by an American colonel, Oliver North, to provide weapons and support for the Contras - US-supported guerrillas who were fighting the left-wing Sandinista government of Nicaragua.

The plan didn't work. Few hostages were released. More were taken, including Irish writer Brian Keenan and journalist John McCarthy and Terry Waite from Britain. Waite went to Beirut as a hostage negotiator for the Church of England. He was held hostage himself for more than five years.

Throughout this period, Iran and Iraq were at war. The United States supported and helped arm the Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, while at the same time supplying his Iranian enemy with weapons. Terry Waite described this as "duplicity of a very high order".

Terry Waite's first return to Beirut since his release