BEIRUT — The crisis in Syria is crossing the border into Lebanon. Beirut has regularly witnessed bloody clashes between pro- and anti-Syrian groups since the Syrian Army withdrew from Lebanon in 2005. But with the Syrian revolution intensifying, pro-Syrian groups in Lebanon have dispatched their thugs, known as the “shabiha,’’ to keep an eye on Beirut’s main streets.
The Hamra neighborhood of West Beirut, with its narrow streets and busy nightlife, has long been a tourist destination, as well as a cosmopolitan hub for free expression, diversity and a good time. It is home to the American University of Beirut and international institutions, such as Amnesty International and Greenpeace. It’s the reason Beirut was once called the “Paris of the East.”
In May 2008, when Hezbollah ordered its militias to invade Beirut in an attempt to force the formation of a national unity government, it sent the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (S.S.N.P.), a pro-Syrian-regime party that wants to annex Lebanon, to Hamra and many other parts of the Middle East. They were assigned to intimidate residents in Hamra. Today, Hamra is dominated by the Syrian Embassy, which is protected by Baath party members and shabiha from the S.S.N.P. The neighborhood is still a hub for wild nightlife, but the S.S.N.P. has made sure to wipe away political diversity and freedom of speech, especially any expression of criticism against President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
As if marking their territory, the shabiha have recently planted their flags — black with a red star that many people believe resembles a swastika — as well as posters of Assad, all the way from the party’s headquarters on Makdissi Street to the Syrian Embassy, in the middle of Hamra, and up to the west end of the neighborhood’s main street. If you walk down that half-mile stretch you can spot groups of shabiha at most of the main corners.
Since the Syrian revolution kicked off nine months ago, their presence around the embassy has intensified. Residents say that a group of young thugs in civilian clothes march up and down Makdissi Street regularly. They attack anti-Assad activists, help organize pro-Assad rallies and harass women. One resident (who prefers to remain unnamed) says that they became “more aggressive and shameless” since October, when the Lebanese Internal Security Forces produced a report implicating the Syrian Embassy and its personnel in the kidnappings of Syrian opposition figures, including the former Syrian vice president and Baath party cofounder, Shibli al-Aysami.
Hanin Ghaddar, a journalist and commentator based in Beirut, is the managing editor of NOW Lebanon.
The above article was published in nytimes.com on December 5th, 2011 (12:28 p.m.).