How the conflict in Syria is spreading division and violence in Lebanon

While the powerful political parties in Lebanon have talked about trying to keep things calm in their country, they support opposing sides of the Syrian civil war. Hari Sreenivasan talks to Anne Barnard of The New York Times about the symbolism of the bombing in the center of Beirut that killed a prominent political figure.


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HARI SREENIVASAN: Anne Barnard is the Beirut bureau chief for The New York Times. I spoke to her a short time ago.

So, Anne, what is the latest information that we have about the bombing?

ANNE BARNARD, The New York Times: Well, no one has claimed responsibility, which is not unusual.

There have been a series of assassinations in Lebanon dating back to 2004, none of which have been solved, and almost in none of them has anyone claimed responsibility. There were quick accusations from Mohamad Chatah's political party that -- implying that either Hezbollah or the Syrian government could have been behind the assassination. They denied it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: How important was Mohamad Chatah to Lebanese politics?

ANNE BARNARD: He is an important figure. He is somewhat behind the scenes. He was one of the main advisers to Saad Hariri, the former prime minister.

And he was seen even by his political opponents as a consensus builder, someone who was able to reach across political and sectarian lines even at moments of extreme tension. So, in that sense, his presence would be sorely missed at a time like this.

HARI SREENIVASAN: How much of a grip does the violence that's happening in Syria have on what is happening in Beirut or what has been happening in Beirut in recent months?

ANNE BARNARD: Well, of course, there are existing conditions in Lebanon that predate the Syrian war, as is in the string of assassinations that I mentioned before.

But since the Syrian war has accelerated, there have been a number of violent attacks in Beirut and other parts of Lebanon which are seen as being part of the spillover from the Syrian war, which has become a regional power struggle. There have been several bombings of areas in Southern Beirut where Hezbollah, an ally of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, has many supporters.

Those have been widely blamed on jihadists fighting with the Syrian rebels or on their Lebanese sympathizers. There was also the bombing of the Iranian Embassy. Iran is also a supporter of Assad. And there have been fears that there could be revenge attacks for those or other jihadi attacks, as well as all kinds of other parties that could take advantage of the situation to spread divisions in Lebanon and try to spill over the Syrian conflict.

HARI SREENIVASAN: How surprising was it that this bombing happened in this particular part of the city?

ANNE BARNARD: Well, that was a big blow to Beirut. This is a neighborhood which is a contested space.

It's the center of downtown Beirut, which was largely destroyed during the war, during the Lebanon civil war, which ended in 1990. It was rebuilt by the Hariri family. And their supporters see it as a symbol of Lebanon's persistence and rebirth, whereas their critics see it as a space that has become a playground for the wealthy.

So it's a place that has a very strong symbolism. But, especially in the holiday season, it can be a very busy place, sparkling with Christmas decorations. And people were shocked to have a bombing right in the center of the city. There had been, you know, fighting in the northern city of Tripoli. There had been shelling in the Bekaa Valley related to the Syrian conflict. But to have it really hit home in the center of Beirut was shocking to a lot of people.

HARI SREENIVASAN: How much of this is sort of a proxy fight of what's happening in Syria now moving into Lebanon?

ANNE BARNARD: Well, this is something that the Lebanese have been worried about from the early days of the Syrian war.

And whereas the powerful parties here, Hezbollah and the rival Future Movement have spoken of trying to keep things calm inside Lebanon, both -- both of them are supporting opposite sides in the Syrian war. And both are accused of sending their militants in to Syria to fight on opposite sides.

You also -- so you have a situation where the existing divisions in Lebanon are now magnified by those in Syria.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Anne Barnard of The New York Times in Beirut, Lebanon, thanks so much.

ANNE BARNARD: Thank you.