Alex Rowell

In Dahiyeh, fear breeds loathing

Sunday’s rocket attacks on Beirut’s southern suburbs fuels further bigotry against Syrian residents

A car in the Beirut southern suburb of Shiyah is damaged after a rocket strike on Sunday

Driving through the gridlocked traffic of Beirut’s southern suburbs Tuesday afternoon, two days after a pair of 107mm Grad rockets struck the neighborhood wounding four Syrian workers, not much looked different except perhaps an increase in the number of “martyr” posters. Despite reports of local Hezbollah militants deploying on street corners and setting up checkpoints following the attacks, NOW saw no evidence during a comprehensive tour of the so-called Dahiyeh (“suburb”) – the sole gunman in sight was a plain-clothed security guard outside the Bahman Hospital in Haret Hreik.


However, there was one novel phenomenon detectable in the minds of Dahiyeh residents – suspicion of, and even bigotry against Syrians.


At a red traffic light in Ghobeiry, a young boy around the age of 10 approached the driver’s window trying to sell some goods. “Where are you from?” asked NOW’s guide, Hussein, a forty-something former Amal militant now employed at the Council for the South. “Syria,” replied the boy. “F*** your sister!” grunted Hussein, turning away in disgust.


“They’re dirty people,” he explained as we drove off. “If I could, I would run them all over with my car.”


Dislike for Syrians – which has been on the rise in Dahiyeh ever since the armed conflict began next door – appears to have reached new levels after Sunday’s rockets, widely believed to have been launched by Syrian rebel brigades. According to civil society activist and Dahiyeh resident Lokman Slim, Syrians were subject to various forms of harassment in the hours following the attacks.


“Youngsters took to the streets with their walkie-talkies and accosted those suspected to be Syrian. They checked their phones, checked their IDs, and asked them where they were living,” Slim told NOW.


Hussein said much the same, adding that Hezbollah was keeping a very close watch on Dahiyeh’s Syrian residents, even asking them if they were for or against the Assad regime.


In part, these measures are being undertaken out of fear. Syrian rebel brigades have already launched multiple rocket strikes on pro-Hezbollah areas in the northeastern Beqaa Valley, one of which killed a teenage girl on Monday. The rebels have also repeatedly threatened to extend these strikes to Dahiyeh.


“People support these security measures, because if we’re targeted again, we might die,” said Hussein. “Syrians here are going in and out of Syria all the time. You never know who could be with the opposition.”


Hussein insisted that locals were not spooked by Sunday’s attacks, though he admitted there were quiet worries of something more major to come.


“Two rockets is not a big deal for us, we survived much worse from the Israelis. The feeling in the area is no different today than it was before the rockets. But, of course, if something bigger happens, like car bombs or gunmen in the streets, that’s another matter.”


Security concerns aside, the mounting ill-will against Syrians has evidently taken on a sectarian dimension as well.


“Alawite Syrians are obviously fine. It’s only the Sunnis we have a problem with,” said Abbas, a young resident whose house was just one block from where one of the rockets fell.


This sectarianism, in turn, appears to be fuelled by recent battles in the Syrian town of Qusayr, where Hezbollah has been in open conflict with Syrian rebels, the latter of whom are largely seen in Dahiyeh as Sunni extremists. Indeed, the Qusayr fighting seems to be at the forefront of the community’s attention, dominating café chatter and online discourse. As we drove through Dahiyeh, passing the countless “martyr” photos plastered on lampposts and balconies, Hussein would note each one that was killed in Qusayr.


“There’s no such thing as the Syrian ‘revolutionaries,’ they’re terrorists,” he told NOW. “They have problems in their brains. It’s not Islam, what they think. They behead people with no political agenda, killing and terrorism are their only goals. The fighter who eats the heart of a dead person is not a revolutionary, in Islam we cannot touch the body of a dead person. It’s haram [forbidden].”


The conversation turned distinctly theological when Hussein defended Hezbollah’s fighting in Qusayr.


“A big majority of Shiites think what Hezbollah is doing is a religious duty. It prepares the return of the Mahdi and the signs of his return, and this is the core of Hezbollah’s ideology. So the jihad in Qusayr is a duty.”


Such rhetoric is perhaps illustrative of what Slim described as Hezbollah’s steering of Syria-related events to its own political advantage.


“[The Sunday attacks] led people in Dahiyeh to swing between fear, questioning, and seeking a protector. And, of course, the protector can’t be any other entity but Hezbollah. But [hostility toward Syrians] is not only caused by the shelling of Dahiyeh, it’s caused by [Hezbollah’s] propaganda machine which is focusing on the wrong deeds of some FSA elements.”


In the longer run, when the Syrian war is over, Slim believes, the Shiite community may come to resent the relatively high death toll incurred as a result of the Qusayr fighting. “People are mourning the boys,” he said.


Hussein, indeed, lamented the “mistakes” he said were made by the Party on the military front.


“The fighters being sent to Qusayr are too young, they’re too ill-prepared. The Syrians have dug trenches and are using them well, sniping the Hezbollah fighters first in the legs and then in the head.”


“Hezbollah sent them to war as if it was just a football game.”


Some of the above names have been changed at the interviewees’ requests.


Racha El-Amin and Yara Chehayed contributed reporting.


Read this article in Arabic

Locals insist they were not spooked by Sunday’s rockets, despite admitting they feared worse to come (AFP/Anwar Amro).

“‘Alawite Syrians are obviously fine. It’s only the Sunnis we have a problem with,’” said Abbas, a young resident whose house was just one block from where one of the rockets fell.'"