Here is a preview of the opening pages of my new book, The Road to Fatima Gate: The Beirut Spring, the Rise of Hezbollah, and the Iranian War Against Israel.
Introduction: The Beirut Spring
“We don’t want the great Syrian prison.” — Kamal Jumblatt
“Rafik Hariri is the person who made Lebanon into a nice place from a place that had nothing nice in it.” — Lebanese schoolchild
On February 14, 2005, an unseen assassin in downtown Beirut activated the detonator on an improvised explosive device and turned former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s motorcade into a fireball. The blast ripped apart vehicles and ignited their gas tanks, shattered buildings in every direction, blew out the windows of the refurbished Phoenicia InterContinental Hotel, and left a crater in the street deep enough to swallow a house. The concussion wave shook foundations everywhere in the capital, and the sound echoed off the sides of the mountains.
Hariri’s armor-plated Mercedes could shield him from sniper rounds and fragmentation grenades, but it could not protect him from this. His family could at least rest knowing that he died instantly. Bassel Fleihan, Lebanon’s former minister of economy and trade, suffered burns on more than 95 percent of his body and would not succumb to his wounds until two months later. Twenty others, mostly bodyguards, also were killed, and more than 200 innocent bystanders were injured.
The scene was a horror. Not only was the former prime minister almost certainly dead, but the whole street was on fire and hundreds of burned and bleeding people were screaming. Acrid black smoke boiled from the vehicles, making rescue all but impossible. It was an act of war and an act of political terrorism, and almost everyone suspected at once that the Syrian government did it.
Syria all but annexed the country at the end of the Lebanese civil war fifteen years earlier, and opposition to rule from Damascus had been rising at home and abroad. Hariri wasn’t exactly the front man for that movement, but he was by far the most popular Lebanese leader who had tired of Pax Syriana. Syria’s strongman President Bashar al-Assad rightly saw Hariri as a threat and wrongly gambled that he could shore up his own rule by dispatching the former prime minister downtown in broad daylight.
It didn’t work. Lebanon exploded in revolt the likes of which the modern Middle East had never seen. About a million people in a country of just more than four million descended on Martyrs Square in Beirut and demanded the immediate termination of Syria’s military occupation and the banishment of its mukhabarat intelligence agents. Hundreds of young people set up a tent city downtown and refused to go home until the Syrian soldiers were out and free elections were formally scheduled.
The story captivated the world. It seemed the “color” revolutions that had recently toppled authoritarian regimes in the former Soviet Union—the Rose Revolution against Eduard Shevardnadze in Georgia, and the Orange Revolution against Viktor Yanukovych’s electoral fraud in Ukraine—found their echo in, of all places, an Arabic-speaking country.
Bashar al-Assad and his ruthless late father, Hafez al-Assad, swore their occupation of Lebanon was a benevolent mission on the part of the forces of order. Somebody had to step in and keep the country’s factions from killing each other. Most of the world accepted this for a while. Many Lebanese even accepted this at first. Lebanon had dismembered and all but destroyed itself between 1975 and 1990, and it didn’t let up until Syria conquered the country, brokered the Taif Agreement, and disarmed the combatants. If Syria left, the hotheaded Lebanese might take their M16s out of their closets again.
That’s what al-Assad’s people said, anyway. As if right on schedule, the uprising against Syrian rule had barely even begun when a series of car bombs exploded from East Beirut to the port city of Jounieh.
I hopped a midnight flight to Beirut from Germany just after the fourth bomb went off. Never before had I flown on so empty a plane. Even my flight to New York City two weeks after al Qaeda destroyed the World Trade Center had more people on it.
Hardly anyone wanted to fly to Beirut now that Beirut was “Beirut” again. Just about everyone in the world my age or older remembered vividly when the city epitomized urban disaster zones in the 1980s. The very name of the city had made me shudder for most of my life, conjuring images of vicious communal bloodletting; airplane hijackings; smoldering embassies; suicide bombers; and hostage-takers with their AK-47s, crazed manifestos, and ski masks.
“I am going to die here,” one of my colleagues said to himself as his own flight prepared to land.
I stayed in a hotel on the west side of the city that was almost as empty as the plane I flew in on. Management discounted the rack rate so steeply that my stay was practically free. The only other guest on my floor was a big shot from some other place whose twitchy bodyguards staking out the hallway started every time they saw me coming.
Most high-end hotels hired security guards to search every car that pulled up for explosives. It didn’t matter who you were, where you were from, or what you looked like—you could not park out front without first having your trunk and undercarriage searched by men wielding mirrors, flashlights, and rifles. I could forget about ordering a pizza. A sign taped to the elevator door in the lobby said, “Due to the security situation we no longer allow food deliveries from outside the hotel. Thank you for understanding.”
It wasn’t as nerve-wracking as it sounds. The streets were quieter than usual, but otherwise, life continued as normal. I couldn’t help wondering, though, as I tried to sleep my first night, if the building was about to explode.
My hotel didn’t explode, but I did tread a bit gingerly when I went downtown and met with the dissidents in their tent city. Who could say for sure that Syria wouldn’t just open fire and kill hundreds of people as China’s Deng Xiaoping did in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989? The late father of the current Syrian president killed as many as tens of thousands in one weekend alone when the Muslim Brotherhood took up arms against his government. “No one is safe,” activist Jad Ghostine told me. “If they will kill the prime minister, they will kill anyone.”
Thomas Friedman, the veteran journalist who cut his teeth in Beirut during the war, issued a stark warning in the New York Times. “There will be no velvet revolutions in this part of the world,” he wrote. “The walls of autocracy will not collapse with just one good push. As the head-chopping insurgents in Iraq, the suicide bombers in Saudi Arabia and the murderers of Mr. Hariri have all signaled: The old order in this part of the world will not go quietly into this good night. You put a flower in the barrel of their gun and they’ll blow your hand and your head right off.”
Beirut, as it turned out, actually did get a velvet revolution of sorts, but no one knew at the time that’s what would happen. Those who knew Lebanon’s history, as Friedman did better than most, had plenty of reasons to worry.
Clashes between Palestinian and Christian militias in 1975 unleashed fifteen years of sectarian warfare unprecedented in its ferocity in the Middle East since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. It was all the more tragic that it happened in the most liberal and democratic of the Arabic-speaking countries.
All Middle Eastern countries have religious minorities, but Lebanon is the only one without a religious majority. A little more than a third of the population is Christian, a little less than a third is Sunni Muslim, and a final third or so is Shia Muslim. Druze make up roughly 5 percent. This was Lebanon’s blessing and curse. It’s the most cosmopolitan place in the region when it’s at peace with itself, but when it breaks down—watch out.
Its breakdown in the 1970s was just about fatal. Many in the Sunni community thrilled to Pan-Arab causes, and none so urgently as that of the Palestinians. The Sunni elite welcomed Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) into the country to use it as a base for its war against Israel and even helped him set up his own state within a state in West Beirut. Many, if not most, Christians were furious. When the government refused to shut Arafat down, they organized militias to do it themselves.
Sporadic clashes with small arms led to serious battles with heavier weapons, and Beirut split apart into mutually hostile cantons. The so-called Green Line ran like a burning and bleeding gash southeast from downtown and cut the city in half, the mostly Christian east side squaring off against the mostly Sunni and Palestinian west.
Soon the whole country was at war with itself. Christians fought Sunnis and Druze. Palestinians fought Shias and Christians. Syria invaded, first to save the Christians from the Palestinians and later to keep the Christians down and Israel out. The Israelis barged in to get rid of Arafat. French and American troops tried to impose some kind of order. Iranian Revolutionary Guards founded Hezbollah to fight the Israelis and hunt down every Westerner they could find. Even the Soviet Union got in on the action by helping Druze leader Kamal Jumblatt slug it out with the Christians for control of the mountains.
Some militiamen even executed civilians at checkpoints for what was printed next to “religion” on their identity cards. The war wasn’t religious per se. God had little or nothing to do with it. Sects in the Middle East are communities; religion just marks the boundaries. As Jews in Israel are considered Jews whether or not they’re religious, every single person in Lebanon belonged to one religiously defined group or another. Atheist “Christians” fought atheist “Sunnis,” and so on. Aside from the radical Islamists of Hezbollah, hardly any of the combatants cared if their enemies went to church, prayed in a mosque, or believed God existed at all. They fought over turf, and they fought over politics.
These communities even turned on themselves. Christians battled it out with other Christians for dominance in their carved-up enclaves in East Beirut and Mount Lebanon. The Shias did the same when Hezbollah fought the secular men of Amal for control of the Israeli border and the suburbs south of Beirut.
Once considered the Switzerland of the Middle East, Lebanon became the place where the Middle East fought its wars. It was not only a battleground for its own sects and their various factions, but the principal battleground in the Arab-Israeli conflict, the first battleground in the nascent Iranian-Israeli conflict, the second-largest front after the Iran-Iraq war in the ancient conflict between Sunnis and Shias, and even a minor sort of proxy war battleground in the Cold War. It could not possibly have been any more of a mess.
It is often said that Israel is tiny, but Lebanon is only half its size. It’s extraordinary that such a small place—with no natural resources to fight over—became so incredibly important, but that’s what happened.
Many Lebanese said their country was cursed by geography. If it were an island, or even if it bordered countries other than Israel and Syria, its history would have had a very different trajectory. The PLO would not have used it as a base to fight Israel and therefore never would have gotten into the shooting fight with the Christians that sparked the war in the first place. The Israelis hardly would have paid it any attention, and without an Israeli invasion and occupation, Iran could not have built up Hezbollah. Syria would never have invaded or occupied it.
So yes, the country was cursed by geography as well as its internal divisions. But what could you do? Lebanon was hardly unique. Bosnia-Herzegovina, Georgia, Ukraine, Israel, Cyprus, Iraq—all these countries had similar problems.
More than 150,000 people were killed in the war—a terrible number, more than 3 percent of the population. Everyone knew someone who didn’t survive, and most people knew several. The country was ravaged, no part of it more than Beirut. Journalist and author Christopher Hitchens was thunderstruck by the vast devastation when he visited after the guns finally went silent.
“From the air it looked like Rotterdam at the end of the Second World War,” he told me when I later met up with him there. “There wasn’t a single undamaged building within a bull’s roar,” he added in an interview published on the website NOW Lebanon. “There was only one functioning hotel. It looked like a moonscape.” He saw a solitary old man clearing rubble away with a shovel and couldn’t stop thinking about him. “I was so touched by it. I was thinking, well, lots of luck. See you in fifty years.”
“You are crazy to be here right now,” the young man next to me said. “Crazy.” He and I sat alone yet next to each other at the bar in a fashionable establishment on Monot Street along the old Green Line that during the war was a deathly silent no-man’s-land between East and West Beirut where nothing lived except weeds and wild grass.
“You really think so?” I said.
I didn’t feel crazy to be there. That feeling passed after twenty four hours. There weren’t tanks in the streets. It wasn’t a war zone. There were, however, far fewer people out in public than usual. Restaurants, cafés, and bars that were usually packed were more than half empty. No one had any idea what might happen next. Most thought it wise to stay home and out of the way.
Beirut had a serious case of the jitters, and I didn’t have to interview anybody to know that. I heard about it constantly even while minding my own business. A taxi driver, in one of the most anguished and heartbroken voices I have ever heard in my life, told me why it was his dream to live in America. “I hate this country,” he said, physically depressed and hunched over the wheel. “Christians kill each other. Muslims kill each other. Oh my God.”
The young man next to me at the bar was named Claude. Obviously, then, he was a Christian. It’s rude to ask a Lebanese person which sect they belong to, but names, accents, and birthplaces often give it away.
“We are getting close to the war,” he said and sipped from his martini. “That’s why the government is asking us all to come out and return to the nightlife. It pushes the war away.”
You can purchase The Road to Fatima Gate at Amazon.com or your local bookstore.