An Assassin’s Land

Charles Glass in Lebanon

After all, who didn’t go through the most improbable adventure during the civil war?

Mikhail Bulgakov, Black Snow

When a Lebanese wants your attention, he lowers his voice. You draw closer, and he asks: ‘Do you want to hear a story?’ If you say yes, and everyone does, you’re hooked. You listen. In the most Lebanese of his novels, Little Mountain, Elias Khoury tells a story about stories. In 1975, early in the civil war, fighters of the pro-Palestinian leftist-Muslim alliance are trapped inside Beirut’s Cathedral of Saint Louis during a battle with the Christian militias. An old French priest starts talking to them. He came to Lebanon as a soldier in 1920, he tells them; his regiment advanced on Damascus to depose King Feisal. The French defeat of Feisal’s army at the Maysaloun Pass brought to an end the prospect of post-Ottoman Arab unity and independence. It also set the stage for the civil war that his listeners were then waging. ‘I took part in many other battles,’ Father Marcel says. ‘In the battles for Jabal Druze and Ghawtah, outside Damascus. And I recall that we were models of chivalry and discipline, and harmed no one.’ Shells falling around the cathedral light up the priest’s memory.

‘Listen carefully.’ (Here, the priest’s tone sharpened.) ‘War is war. You can’t fight your enemies, you can’t stop terrorists and spies and the enemies of civilisation without killing some of them. The fate of civilisation was at stake. The fate of French history hung on the outcome of the Jabal and Ghawtah battles. Leniency was out of the question.’

Khoury wrote Little Mountain in 1977, and imperial discourse has not altered. Leniency is still out of the question.

I returned to Lebanon this April in time for the 30th birthday of the civil war and to watch the Syrian army depart after 29 years. An old friend met me at Beirut’s flashy new international airport. With him was his son, whom I’ve known since he was 12. We went to dinner in the rue Hamra, lazily described by prewar journalists as Beirut’s Champs Elysées. Now, after the war, the once vibrant avenue was deserted and its glitzy cafés – the Café de Paris among them – were dark. The only other customers in our kebab restaurant were a Syrian family, parents with two children. ‘They won’t be here much longer,’ my friend said. The Syrian army was withdrawing. Thirty Syrian workers had been murdered, and more than a hundred thousand had gone home, leaving Lebanon’s construction boom without labour, its public gardens unwatered and its oranges unpicked. Born in 1968, my friend’s son did not want his children to live through war as he, his brothers and sisters had done. If Lebanon remained at peace, he said, he would like to stay. But, in case war resumed in the wake of Syria’s withdrawal, he had applied for residence in Canada. The Canadians had granted his request that afternoon. He asked me what he should do.

Since 1975, every Lebanese has confronted the dilemma of leaving or staying put. They all tell stories of living through war, fleeing into exile, fighting, hiding, violent dramas, funerals, betrayals and assassinations. Most have experienced the ‘leniency’ of foreigners: the Palestinian sack of Damour in 1976, the Israeli onslaught in 1982, the USS New Jersey’s 16-inch guns pounding the Shouf in 1983, and the Syrian bombardment of East Beirut in 1989. Every foreign army that camped in Lebanon during the 20th century has gone: the Turks, the British, the French, the Palestinians, the Americans, the Israelis and now the Syrians. Their futile military campaigns have become legends that mothers pass on to their children, as my Lebanese grandmother passed on to me the story of how the Turks killed her father. The fables are unending, and nobody connects one to another.

When the historian Kamal Salibi was 17, he watched the French army’s reluctant retreat from Lebanon. Under the Sykes-Picot Agreement with Britain in 1916, France had assumed a mandate, later ratified by the League of Nations, to govern Syria and Mount Lebanon. Its mission civilisatrice to the Christians of Lebanon led it to expand the borders of the Christian statelet, incorporating so many Muslims – both Sunni and Shia – from outside the Ottoman governorate of Mount Lebanon that the Muslims inevitably became a majority. The Sunnis in Damascus and the Druze in southern Syria revolted against French rule again and again, and the French bombarded Damascus and the Druze villages. By the time the French departed, even the Christians were in the streets demanding that they leave. ‘The French left very nicely on the last day of 1946,’ Salibi recalled, sitting in his West Beirut flat near the American University where he taught for forty years. ‘The Lebanese gave them a 21-gun salute. They were thanked for what they did for the country. The ugly side of the mandate was quickly forgotten.’ Only a compromise – the unwritten National Pact that distributed government offices by religious sect – saved Lebanon from fratricidal violence in 1946. Every sect took its share of the spoils: from the presidency, the prerogative of the Maronite Catholics, through the Sunni prime ministership and the Shia office of house speaker, down to the lowliest post in the civil service. Now, almost sixty years later, Salibi, the author of the standard history of Lebanon – A House of Many Mansions – was watching the Syrian army pack up and go home across the French-created border. There was no 21-gun salute. ‘If they had withdrawn gracefully of their own accord, they would have left with some courtesy and perhaps some gratitude. Instead, they left like housebreakers.’ To pre-empt embarrassing televised scenes of toppling statuary, the Syrian troops took with them imposing statues of two men: Hafez al-Assad, the Syrian president who sent his army into Lebanon in 1976; and his heir, Bashar al-Assad, who under international pressure brought the troops back in time for the United Nations deadline of 30 April.

Lebanon is an assassin’s land. In a way, the war began not with the violence of April 1975, but when an Israeli death squad murdered three Palestinian politicians and two of their wives in April 1973. Ehud Barak, who led the hit-team, would become Israel’s prime minister and withdraw the last Israeli troops from Lebanon in May 2000. On the morning after the April 1973 killings, the Lebanese lined up for and against the Palestinians. Sunni Muslims demanded that the Palestinians be allowed to defend themselves, to conduct a commando war against Israel from Lebanon and to maintain an armed state within the state. Maronite Catholics wanted the Palestinians disarmed, as they had been in all other Arab states. The Christian-commanded Lebanese army attacked the Palestinians in May 1973; these were the first street battles I had ever seen. The antagonists in the struggle – which became full-scale war in 1975, after the diplomatic activity prompted by the Arab-Israeli war of October 1973 had come to an end – were the same as they had been during the French mandate, when the divisions were over borders and identity: Christians and a few Muslim notables welcomed Lebanon’s detachment from Syria, while the Muslims and a few Christian intellectuals rejected it. In 1975, Arab nationalism, embodied in the Palestinian cause, battled Lebanese nationalism. (Although each side would say they were both Lebanese and Arab, their nationalisms lost the war to tribalism and religious orthodoxy.) By the summer of 1976, the Palestinians and their Lebanese allies were on the verge of defeating the Christians and the state itself.

The Christians found an unlikely saviour, but the only one available: Syria. The Christian Lebanese president, Suleiman Frangieh, turned for help to Hafez al-Assad. There was a long-standing friendship between the two men, which goes some way to explaining the strange alliance of Christian Lebanese nationalists and the Arab nationalists of Damascus. The friendship was born just before the civil war of 1958. (Lebanon has had three civil wars – 1861, 1958 and 1975-90 – and may yet endure a fourth.) Accused of murdering family rivals in a north Lebanese church, Frangieh had taken refuge in Syria with the family of Assad’s father. Now Assad came to his rescue again. Obtaining America’s blessing and Israel’s tacit approval, he sent his army into Lebanon. To the Palestinians, Arab nationalists and Muslims who had romantically looked on Damascus as their eternal benefactor, the betrayal was absolute. Kamal Jumblatt, the Druze chief who led the Lebanese National Movement made up of the Palestinians’ leftist and Muslim allies, sent a letter to Assad. ‘I beg you to withdraw the troops you have sent into Lebanon,’ Jumblatt wrote. ‘We do not want to be a satellite state. We want to be independent . . . We do not want the great Syrian prison. When you have moved towards political democracy in Syria, when you have created democracy on Western lines, then we will be the first to ask that Lebanon become part of a Syrian-Lebanese federation.’ Commenting in his memoirs on his letter to Assad, Jumblatt wrote: ‘Perhaps my tone vexed him a little.’ A few months later, on 16 March 1977, Jumblatt drove through a Syrian military checkpoint in his native Shouf region of Mount Lebanon. Gunmen – Syrian soldiers or security agents – shot him dead. His son Walid inherited the leadership of the Druze community and of Lebanon’s Muslim-leftist alliance. More assassinations followed – of Frangieh’s son Tony, the Christian president-elect Bashir Gemayel, the Sunni prime minister Rashid Karami, the Christian leader Dany Chamoun, dozens of Palestinian and Shia Muslim commanders and many, many others.

Walid Jumblatt, who led the movement to expel the Syrians from Lebanon, told me a story over dinner in the village of Mukhtara. On 1 October last year, a car bomb on the Corniche in West Beirut severely injured Marwan Hamadeh, his trusted friend and lieutenant. Hamadeh had just voted in parliament, along with Jumblatt’s other deputies, against a constitutional amendment to extend the presidential term of Syria’s de facto appointee in Lebanon, Emile Lahoud. (The amendment passed anyway, thanks to Syria’s control over the Lebanese parliament.) Jumblatt blamed the Syrians for the attempted murder. After hearing of the attack, Abdel Halim Khaddam, Syria’s vice president and a tough Sunni Muslim from rural Syria, went to visit the wounded Hamadeh. Since 1976, Khaddam had been the senior Syrian politician regulating Lebanese affairs. If you wanted anything done in Lebanon, you went to Khaddam. When he appeared outside the American University hospital, his car was surrounded by the Druze bodyguard posted at the hospital to keep an eye out for Hamadeh. Jumblatt intervened to protect Khaddam and in the course of the encounter, Khaddam spoke about the three attempts on his own life. The first, he told Jumblatt, had been made by the Sunni fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood and the second by a leftist, Muslim, pro-Palestinian army lieutenant. The third attempt, he said, was by Rifaat al-Assad. Rifaat was Hafez al-Assad’s bellicose younger brother. Khaddam’s story contained a coded message: don’t blame the Syrian president, blame his brother. Bashar al-Assad has a younger brother too: his name is Maher.

Walid Jumblatt told me that the Druze community has always sided with the Sunnis in Lebanon. At about 8 per cent of the population, the Druze fear for their survival in the mountains where their religion took root in the 12th century. Why would the Druze, a syncretic and secretive offshoot of Shia Islam, make common cause with the Sunnis, whose fundamentalist religious leaders call them heretics? Kamal Jumblatt wrote that the Druze lived in what became the Christian areas around Kesrouan ‘until the Mamelukes of Wali Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt swept through the region and massacred them. That was in 1585: 60,000 Druze were killed.’ The Druze do not need to be on the Sunni side so much as to have the Sunnis on their side. Since the former prime minister Rafik Hariri was murdered in February, Lebanon’s Sunnis have been leaderless. They have also come to hate the Syrians, whom they blame for his death; the Syrians destroyed centuries of Sunni loyalty at a stroke.

Rafik Hariri, who like Jumblatt spent most of his political life as a Syrian ally, became prime minister after the 1989 Taif Accords ended the civil war and made Syria guarantor of the peace; he resigned in October 2004. A construction magnate who had made billions in Saudi Arabia, he was born dirt poor in Sidon. His political battles were minor compared to the struggle the Lebanese really care about: business. Hariri had a running feud with a Christian businessman called Fadi Khoury over the future of Khoury’s hotel, the Saint Georges. The legendary hotel was Lebanon’s – probably the Levant’s – finest. Built in the 1930s for French senior officers, the five-storey building perched on a tiny bay in West Beirut. Battles wrecked and closed it in late 1975. At the war’s end, Khoury planned to restore it. Hariri blocked him. The hotel did not fit his plans for the reconstruction of the city centre, but the story went that this was a Christian-Muslim clash over valuable property on the Muslim side of Beirut. Although Khoury kept the beach club and swimming-pool open, the hotel remained unrepaired. On Valentine’s Day this year, a few hundred yards down the Corniche from the spot where Marwan Hamadeh was wounded, a massive car bomb was detonated as Hariri’s motorcade was passing the Saint Georges; Hariri was killed instantly. A large part of the hotel, already a shell, collapsed onto the beach club. The story they told me was that on hearing the explosion Khoury’s first words were: ‘That bastard Hariri is trying to kill me.’

Hariri was not trying to kill anyone. He never had a militia and never fired a shot. He was a bulldozer in his approach to politics, demanding and receiving acquiescence. Without him, there would probably be no revived downtown Beirut, no highways between north and south, no modern telecommunications, no Saudi investment. And no $40 billion national debt. The story goes that last September Hariri was on the verge of voting against the extension of Lahoud’s presidential term – until he was threatened and insulted by Bashar al-Assad and Rostom Ghazaleh, Syria’s security chief in Lebanon. Hariri’s parliamentary bloc changed tack and cast its votes in favour of the amendment, but Hariri concluded that the time had come for Syria to leave the Lebanese to govern themselves. The Americans wanted Syria out of Lebanon as a first step to destroying the Damascus regime, and an international consensus was forming against prolonging the Syrian presence. Hariri made his peace with Walid Jumblatt and warned him that the Syrians would kill one of them. A friend of Hariri’s told me recently that Hariri didn’t really believe he was a target: he thought it was Jumblatt the Syrians wanted rid of. The opposition – led by Jumblatt, Hariri and the leftist Christian writer Samir Frangieh (Suleiman Frangieh’s nephew), as well as the old rightist Maronite chiefs Amin Gemayel and General Michel Aoun – was jeopardising what the Lebanese newspaper publisher Jamil Mroue called ‘a Mafia-style network’ of families around President Lahoud. They included Lahoud’s in-law and former interior minister Michel Murr and the Alawi sect, to which Bashar al-Assad’s family belongs, in Syria. That is the story, and people believe it. One political expert said: ‘It was an economic assassination.’ He meant that Hariri’s killing was business.

Salim Diab, who was probably Hariri’s closest friend and confidant, told me a story about him. After he made his fortune, Hariri sent an assistant to the Kesrouan, the rural Maronite Christian heartland where the Druze had lived, on a mission to locate an old man called Abu George. He did not know his family name, and there must have been ten thousand ‘fathers of George’ among the Christians. Behind the search lay another story. When he was a child, Hariri would take the bus from Sidon to Kesrouan to pick apples. When the farm manager paid the workers in cash at the end of each day, he would give Hariri a bonus of two kilos of apples because the boy was so poor. That manager was Abu George. Salim Diab said that Hariri’s assistant finally found Abu George, and Hariri then gave him the farm he had managed all his life. Hariri also paid for a house, equipment and maintenance. Diab believed that Hariri never forgot anyone who had helped him before he became rich. His largesse also extended to thousands of students – including the children of Syrian officials like Abdel Halim Khaddam – whose education he subsidised. There were also his hospitals, foundations and charities. This is how myths take shape around a man who, if he had been a Catholic, would be a candidate for sainthood.

The movement for change was born at Hariri’s grave, as Samir Frangieh recalled. ‘Three days after his killing, there was a meeting. The television was on without sound. The screen was split in two. Part was the condolences at Hariri’s house. The other part was people praying at the tomb. I said: “Look. There is something going on.” There were Christians, Muslims, young and old, rich and poor. For the first time, you saw people from all parts of Lebanon praying together. At the same time, a journalist called to say the mukhabarrat’ – the intelligence services – ‘were putting pressure on the television not to show the tomb.’ Street demonstrations followed – by Syria’s opponents, by Hizballah in favour of Syria and finally, on 14 March, the biggest rally of all, demanding Syrian withdrawal and parliamentary elections to bring down the Syrian-anointed government. When I went downtown to the tomb next to the massive mosque that Hariri had built, there were so many flowers, holy cards, candles, turquoise stones and other talismans that it was like visiting the Holy Sepulchre.

Timur Guksel, a Turk who spent 25 years in south Lebanon as spokesman for the United Nations Interim Force, had retired to Beirut as a professor of politics. He told me his own story about the day Hariri died. Above the waves breaking on Beirut’s Pigeon Rocks, he drank Turkish coffee and described an explosion that had rocked the city physically and morally. ‘I live in this neighbourhood,’ he said. ‘The people are nice Sunnis. They did not care. But when their leader was killed, they picked up the flag and went out.’ In the old days, they would have picked up a rifle. ‘There is the famous Syrian fear of Lebanon going it alone with the Israelis,’ Guksel warned. ‘As long as there is that fear, the Syrians will never give up Lebanon.’ With or without a military presence, the Syrians retain influence. They control Lebanon’s only open border and thus its trade with the Arab oil states. Unlike the United States, which sailed away from Lebanon in 1984, Syria will always be next door.

I took a taxi from Beirut to Damascus, pausing for an espresso at the new Dunkin’ Donuts on the Syrian side of the border. At the new Ministry of Expatriate Affairs, the minister, Buthaina Shaaban, discussed her fears of American destabilisation. She represents the attractive, educated, civilian technocracy that seeks ascendancy within the Syrian regime. When I asked her whether she thought the US might use Lebanon as a base for subversion against Syria, she said: ‘Probably.’ Internal resistance to the liberalisation of Syria is strong, born of self-interest and fear of sudden change in a country where military coups were annual events until Hafez al-Assad took power in 1970. When some Americans speak blithely of asking Lebanon to sign a peace treaty with Israel or to permit an American naval base in Lebanon from which the US could supply its forces in Iraq, it terrifies the Syrians. ‘The American policy in the Middle East does not help liberal-minded people or reformers,’ Shaaban said. ‘It helps extremists.’ The Syrian exiles demanding ‘freedom and democracy’ are a mutually antagonistic mix: a Syrian-American millionaire called Farid Ghadari (sometimes known as ‘the Syrian Chalabi’); the Sunni fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, who insist that the Alawis and other dissident Islamic sects are not Muslim; and Rifaat al-Assad, the president’s uncle. Rifaat, who killed more than ten thousand people in 1982 to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Hama, has lived in exile since 1984, when he attempted a coup against his brother. From his base in Marbella, he recently issued an appeal for democracy in Syria. What did Dr Shaaban make of that? ‘That’s really the end of the world.’

The Assad family and most of its political collaborators are Alawi Muslims from Syria’s peasant north, where the French recruited soldiers for the colonial army. They say that many years ago a young Alawi called Assef Shawkat was courting President Hafez al-Assad’s daughter Bushra. Bushra’s oldest brother, Basil, didn’t like Shawkat and had him imprisoned. After Basil’s death in a car crash in 1994, Assad released Shawkat, who eloped with Bushra the following year. They had twins in 1997. In June 2000 Assad died and Bashar, his second son, assumed office. The next brother, Maher, had an argument with his brother-in-law and shot him. Shawkat survived. In February this year, Bashar al-Assad appointed Shawkat his chief of intelligence. The government announced the appointment only after Hariri died, but the story I heard in Damascus was that the appointment took effect two weeks before the Hariri assassination. Buthaina Shaaban does not accept that Syria killed Hariri: ‘It must be the one who is targeting the security of both Lebanon and Syria. He was a bridge and an important part of the solution. This was a terrorist act that is targeting Syria and Lebanon and relations between Syria and Lebanon.’ This means: the Israelis did it. Another Syrian official confided, off the record: ‘There are underdeveloped people working for our security services.’ He subscribed to the ‘if only the leader knew’ theory of politics that many Syrians believed for thirty years under Hafez al-Assad. The effect of Hariri’s murder was to mobilise half of Lebanon’s population on the streets with cries for al haqiqa, ‘the truth’, about his assassination and the immediate evacuation of Syrian forces. Not only did the Syrian army have to leave, but the security services and their chief in Lebanon, Rostom Ghazaleh, went home with it. If Syria did kill Hariri, it was an own goal. A Lebanese friend said: ‘Soon you will read in the newspapers that Rostom Ghazaleh committed suicide by shooting himself three times.’

‘The Syrians trained the Lebanese intelligence services to do things the Syrian way,’ a former director of Lebanon’s police force told me. ‘All the security chiefs will have to go. The mentality has to change. Syrian officers made money here. The Syrians and the Lebanese corrupted each other.’ Since 1990, Lebanon has sent its military officers to the Syrian military academy in Homs rather than to Saint Cyr and West Point. Lebanon’s command structure was Syrianised. At the time of Hariri’s death, the head of Lebanon’s internal intelligence, the Sûreté Générale, was a Shia from the Bekaa Valley called Jamil Sayed. When many Lebanese publicly accused him of having killed Hariri, he challenged them to put him on trial. Incapable of dealing with the investigation themselves, the Lebanese invited an international commission to find the elusive haqiqa. The UN’s first fact-finding mission commented in its report of 24 March that ‘there was a distinct lack of commitment on the part of the Lebanese authorities to investigate the crime effectively, and that this investigation was not carried out in accordance with acceptable international standards.’ It added that ‘the Lebanese security services and the Syrian military intelligence bear the primary responsibility for the lack of security, protection, law and order in Lebanon.’ After Hariri’s assassination came the killings of two more anti-Syrians, both Christians of the left: the An Nahar columnist Samir Kassir and the Communist Party chief George Haweh. Anger over the deaths of so many anti-Syrians helped the opposition into power in the June parliamentary elections, but it did not give them the two-thirds majority necessary to repeal the constitutional amendment that prolonged President Lahoud’s term. Lahoud’s presence and his ability to appoint security directors leaves Syria with assets inside the Lebanese apparatus.

Tampering with the constitution, as Syria did when it acted to prolong Lahoud’s term, has always been a dangerous business in Lebanon. When Camille Chamoun attempted to grant himself a second term as president in 1958, the Muslims went to war and stopped him. The price they paid was that Lebanon came under an Egyptian condominium, with the agreement of Eisenhower, who sent in the marines. Lebanon’s new ruler was not General Fuad Shehab, who succeeded Chamoun as president, but the Egyptian ambassador, Abdel Hamid Ghaleb, who represented Nasser. A system as delicate as Lebanon’s – in which the elites of 17 religious communities shared power – attracts outsiders to maintain its balance. Walid Jumblatt told me the Lebanese were still in need of a proconsul.

Most Lebanese seem reluctant to let the Americans, who claim credit for the Syrian withdrawal, assume the role at which they failed in 1983 when they had marines on the ground. Given the ideology that propelled them into Iraq, the Americans may tip the balance too sharply against Syria’s Lebanese allies – who, despite having remained loyal to Syria for too long, speak for large constituencies. Jumblatt had been troubled by a visit from a US State Department official shortly after Hariri’s death. The American envoy’s translator, Gamal Helal, was ‘a neo-con and a Copt’. Copts are the Christians of Egypt (Boutros Boutros Ghali is one). ‘The Copt hated the Arabists. He despised them.’ The State Department’s Arabists had clashed with the neo-cons over the invasion of Iraq. Helal introduced Jumblatt to the phrase ‘constructive instability’, and the other essential of the neo-conservative lexicon, ‘creative chaos’. The Lebanese learned that instability and chaos were neither constructive nor creative long before the US delivered them to Baghdad, and they don’t want them back.

Washington is demanding that Syria open an embassy in Beirut. They say this would mean Syrian recognition of Lebanese independence. But, as Kamal Jumblatt wrote in his memoirs, Lebanon’s Sunnis had always opposed diplomatic relations, rejecting a formal relationship between two sister countries they insist are really one. Jumblatt fears that the Lebanese equilibrium would suffer even more from another American diktat: disarming Hizballah. Jumblatt believed that an order to disarm Hizballah by force would split the army – something that happened during the civil war. That would mean the end of Lebanon, again.

Nearly 400,000 Palestinian refugees, whose commandos in 1975 were the proximate cause of the war, remain in camps all over Lebanon. Dispossessed by Israel in 1948, they have been maltreated by the Lebanese establishment ever since. The law excludes them from most forms of employment, and they are not entitled to Lebanese state services. As the Syrians were withdrawing, Ahmad Jibril, who runs the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command from Damascus, arrived in Beirut. After conferring with Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbollah’s leader, he told journalists: ‘We have to talk about the Palestinians living in Lebanon with brother Hassan Nasrallah. They are here temporarily. After that, there is only one road – back to Palestine. We are against having Palestinians here permanently. We will resist it by all means . . . We won’t interfere in internal Lebanese affairs. We know you are our hosts, but we reserve the right to defend ourselves against American and Israeli plans.’ That was a warning, not from the Palestinians, but from Syria. The last time the Palestinians in Lebanon were disarmed, by Israel in 1982, certain Christians in collaboration with Israel massacred refugees in the Sabra and Shatila camps. Hizballah has defended the Palestinians in Lebanon and supported Palestinians resisting Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. Disarming them is higher on Israel’s agenda than America’s.

Hizballah is Lebanon’s only remaining armed militia and probably its largest political party. Since 1992, its leadership and policies have been more Lebanese – that is, more about balance – than Iranian. The change began, as with so much else in Lebanon, after an assassination. On 16 February 1992, an Israeli aircraft rocketed a convoy of Hizballah leaders, who were leaving a memorial service in south Lebanon. One rocket blasted the car of the Hizballah general secretary, Sayyid Abbas Musawi, killing him, his wife and their infant son. The next day, Hizballah elected Hassan Nasrallah as his successor. Timur Guksel was living in south Lebanon at the time. ‘He was 32,’ Guksel recalled. ‘With his leadership style, he won over Hizballah. Before him, the UN was in a constant state of tension with Hizballah. Until then, they were dreaming of an Islamic state of Lebanon. By opening Hizballah as a political party, he attracted volunteers that the old Hizballah could not dream of attracting. He attracted doctors and engineers. He revamped military operations. Before that, there were operations against the SLA’ – the South Lebanon Army, an Israeli-run proxy force – ‘and the Israelis. The operations were just a lot of noise. Field autonomy came in. Commanders no longer had to report to a turban in Beirut. Hizballah started opening up to the Christians.’ Guksel asked if I knew the story about Nasrallah’s son. ‘Nasrallah’s son Hadi died fighting the Israelis. He was 18 in 1997. There was a clash on a Friday afternoon. Four were killed. On the same day, nearby, six Lebanese soldiers were killed in an air-raid. They included four Christians. By Saturday noon, we knew his son was killed. Nasrallah had a lecture in Beirut scheduled. He gave it as if nothing had happened. The audience demanded he talk about Hadi. He said: “Yesterday, we also lost six Lebanese soldiers, including the four Christians. We lost ten martyrs yesterday.” He refused to say any more about it.’ In 2000 Ehud Barak, the hit-team commander turned prime minister, announced that Israel was withdrawing from the corner of Lebanon it had occupied since March 1978. ‘I was told by everyone that blood would flow over south Lebanon,’ Guksel said: there were widespread fears of Hizballah reprisals against those Lebanese, both Christian and Shia, who had served Israel. ‘The French were going to send an aircraft carrier. Since the Israeli withdrawal in May 2000, not one person has been killed for collaboration with Israel.’ The decision not to kill former collaborators, everyone says, was Nasrallah’s. Even Christians share national pride in Hizballah’s expulsion of the Israeli army, something no Arab army has ever achieved. ‘Hizballah was very correct,’ a Lebanese security officer told me. ‘Let me tell you, if it had been the Christians, there would have been massacres.’ A Christian himself, he knows.

In 1987, Hizballah kidnapped me and held me for two months in the southern suburbs of Beirut. Fear kept me away from Beirut for ten years. Today, I can walk anywhere in the Shia suburbs with no more trouble than if I were on the American University campus. Shop windows display fashionable clothes and sporting goods, and McDonald’s does a brisk business in McArabia sandwiches. Young men wear baseball caps with the visors pointed back and down. No one carries a Kalashnikov, as bearded young men did in the kidnapping era. Now they have mobiles on their belts. I had an appointment at Manar TV, sometimes called the Voice of Hizballah, in the suburb of Haret Hreik. The US had just declared Manar a terrorist channel and demanded that it be banned from the global airwaves. Washington hates Hizballah because it kidnapped people like me in the 1980s – murdering two, the CIA station chief and a marine colonel – and blew up the American embassy and the US marine barracks. Hizballah’s development from a liberation movement demanding an Islamic republic to a political party within a plural Lebanon is lost on Washington’s neo-cons. Once a terrorist, always a terrorist. Ibrahim Musawi, the director of political programming at Manar TV, told me that Hizballah was entitled to bear arms under the 1989 Taif Accords that ended the war. In spite of UN Resolution 1559 it would not disarm. ‘Before any resistance started,’ Musawi said, ‘the Israelis from 1948 to 1969 came to Lebanese territory – stealing water, annexing villages, kidnapping. We have a reason to keep our arms. Even between Saudi Arabia and Yemen, two friendly countries, the tribes are allowed to carry arms to control smuggling.’ Hizballah would consider disarming, he went on, if Israel disarmed its settlers in the West Bank. The day before our meeting, Hizballah had launched an unarmed drone with spy cameras over Israel. While Israel continued to violate Lebanese airspace, he said, Hizballah would use the drones. Hizballah would not yield to every American demand – for example, that Lebanon sign a treaty with Israel or allow the US to build military bases – but Musawi believed dialogue between the US and Hizballah would benefit the US. The London-based Conflict Forum had recently sponsored a series of meetings at Beirut’s Hotel Albergo, bringing together former CIA officers, ex-ambassadors and businessmen with officials from Hizballah, the Palestinians’ Hamas and Jemaa Islamiyya. ‘This embodiment of Islam has put forward a good example,’ Musawi concluded. ‘Hizballah never stole. It was never in government. It helped the peasants. It helped the wounded. It is in parliament. It believes in democracy and elections and free speech. What more do they want?’

One difficult issue remains between Israel and Hizballah: Shabaa Farms, a small stretch of Lebanese territory that Israel still occupies. It is not as simple as that, however. ‘It was considered Lebanese until 1957,’ Kamal Salibi told me. ‘The Syrian gendarmerie walked in and asked the Lebanese gendarmerie to leave.’ All 14 farms are registered with the property office in Hasbaya, Lebanon. But it was Syria that lost the territory to Israel in 1967. Most Lebanese are content to let the issue be resolved in negotiations between Syria and Israel – that is, to be ignored. ‘Hizballah, if it chooses, can forget about Shabaa without losing face,’ Salibi said. But face-saving seems to be important to both sides. Samir Frangieh, who worked hard for co-operation between Hizballah and the anti-Syrian opposition, said: ‘I told Nasrallah that I don’t care about Shabaa Farms, but I know I cannot build this country without you.’ That is, Shabaa is not worth war against Israel or among the Lebanese.

Long ago, before the Maronites drifted onto northern Mount Lebanon from the Syrian plains, the mountain was a refuge for Shia Muslims afraid of their orthodox Sunni overlords. Over centuries, the Maronites displaced them. A few Shia remained and converted to Christianity, but most moved east to the Bekaa Valley. Relics of their presence linger, however. Robert Frangieh, the late president’s son, told me about a Shia shrine near his home in the Christian mountain village of Ehden. Called the Makbara Metwali, the Tomb of the Shia, it honours a Shia saint. Christians, he said, stayed the night there when they were ill and prayed for the saint to deliver them a miraculous cure. A Muslim Lourdes for Catholics. On the Syrian side of the border, in the Aramaic-speaking village of Ma’alula, Muslim women who think they can’t have children visit the cave of Saint Takla to be made fertile by water dripping from the stones above. Before the Ottomans imposed reforms, demanded by the Great Powers, which transferred communal land to private owners and forced the empire’s communities to compete in the global marketplace, there had been no communal violence in what became Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan. In the mid-19th century, French merchants introduced the mulberry tree for the cultivation of silkworms: the silk was shipped to factories in Lyon. Workers and peasants demanded better treatment and Sunni merchants in Damascus and Druze landlords in Mount Lebanon depicted their labour strike as an uprising by Christians against Muslim rule. The massacres of Lebanon’s first civil war followed, and the Great Powers invaded.

America tells Syria to change, to stop being the ‘great Syrian prison’ that Kamal Jumblatt wanted no part of. America blames Syria for its woes in Iraq. America and Israel both insist that Syria is responsible for the Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation. To achieve its objectives, America is inciting Kurds in northern Syria, its clients in Lebanon and Syrian exiles in the West in an attempt to change the regime in Damascus. Leniency is out of the question. Whether America succeeds or fails, Lebanon will pay.