Lebanon through the prism of Syria

By Kim Ghattas
BBC News, Washington

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Image source, Getty Images
Image caption, Syria's civil war threatens to drag Lebanon back to its violent past

Wednesday's bomb attacks in Beirut are a reminder of why Lebanon is at once both marginal and essential in the region.

Compared to the horrors of the war next door in Syria, the spill-over violence in Lebanon is a meaningless sideshow. But every bomb attack (and there have been too many in recent weeks) and every assassination (happening at a slower pace but still robbing the country of its best and brightest) is a reminder of the far-reaching consequences, should Lebanon tip over the edge.

I was recently in Lebanon, which is my home country, and I was struck by the despair I sensed about its future. The Lebanese have been through civil war, and years of shaky peace, but always held on to the hope that things would get better. Now they're grasping at straws, trying to keep up their spirits.

Despite its plethora of problems, Lebanon still presents the closest model the Arab world has for pluralism and coexistence, and the only country in the Middle East where Christians are still real, full partners in national politics, with a Christian as president.

But Lebanon has been struggling to withstand the shockwaves of the war across the border, barely an hour away in Syria. Much of the reporting about regional impact of the war in Syria lumps Lebanon together with Jordan and Turkey under the topic: Syria's neighbours suffering from the refugee influx and some violent, occasional spill-over.

This ignores the long intertwined history between Lebanon and Syria, however, a history that explains why, unlike in Amman or Istanbul, people in Beirut feel that their fate is tied to the outcome of the conflict next-door.

Syrian troops occupied Lebanon for three decades, from 1976 to 2005. Every political party in Lebanon is still either a key ally or a sworn enemy of Mr Assad's government. Whatever the outcome of the war, it will have repercussions for Lebanon.

The Syrian war is also being fought on Lebanese soil, and any debate in Washington about what to do in Syria cannot ignore Lebanon. When the time comes to finally put the broken pieces in Syria back together, a time that can't come soon enough, Lebanon with its complex model of coexistence may have something to offer.

This is why the international community needs to do more to help insulate Lebanon from the ravages of the Syrian war until then.

During their internecine wars, the Lebanese felt like pawns in a greater game, but they also knew they partly held the keys to reconciliation. Today they are acutely aware they cannot kiss and make up in Beirut and hope it will translate into peace in Damascus.

I spent some time exploring that sense of deep anxiety earlier in the year and the result is a half-hour radio documentary.

I purposely avoided speaking to politicians and pundits. I wanted to find out what the people thought, across the country, in every community. The documentary is a poignant journey across death and despair, as I talk to people who've lost sons, fathers and brothers.

We called the documentary Dancing into the Abyss because one of the key interviewees, Ronnie Chatah, whose father was assassinated in December, told me the Lebanese are still unable or unwilling to confront the real problems in the political system in Lebanon and are distracting themselves with the small pleasures of life, like dancing the night away - but essentially dancing into the abyss.

I did find one silver lining - the war next-door in Syria has reawakened painful memories of what a civil war entails for a nation. Despite the tension and bombings, the Lebanese are fiercely resisting being dragged back into the past. They're just not sure yet how to move forward.

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