Black flags & Christmas lights

The assumption here is that Lebanon will be the next place the jihadis target

Beirut, Lebanon: Blue and white Christmas lights twinkle over the shops near my apartment in Beirut’s Christian quarter; pricy boutiques display elaborate nativity scenes. But people are having trouble getting into the festive mood. “Do you think the war will come here?” asks my landlady nervously. There is no rush to battle, no electric charge in the air, just a rather depressed feeling among Lebanese that their country can no longer escape the violence in Syria. The black flag of the Islamic State has appeared after Friday prayers in some mosques in the north. The assumption is that Lebanon will be the next target of the jihadis. Still, there are reasons to hope.

Sectarian bloodletting might have begun after ISIS and another Al Qaeda offshoot, the Nusra Front, kidnapped 30 Lebanese soldiers. Three have been beheaded. Most of the group are Shia. The soldiers’ families have set up camp right outside the Lebanese Cabinet offices, tents adorned with pictures of the missing men. The families want the government to okay a prisoner swap with the jihadis. The ISIS cleverly let them visit the captives. One protester, Nizam Meghet, told me he barely recognised his brother, a corporal; he’d lost so much weight. “We’re here from all sects. Sunnis, Shia, Druze and Christians,” said Nizam, a Sunni. An elderly Shia man, with a son held hostage, nodded.

The pessimists believe that ISIS is stronger after American bombing. That is because the US also bombed Nusra, a bitter enemy of the ISIS. The two groups had been killing one another but then some sources spoke of a new unity forged by US missiles. That would be bad for Lebanon, where Nusra has a following among Sunni refugees. Despite talk of a grand alliance, the two groups continue to trade insults on Twitter.

Britain is spending £20 million to stop the jihadis from invading Lebanon. The money is for building new border posts and train the soldiers manning them. The effort is led by former Guards officer, Giles Taylor. The jihadis — Nusra and ISIS — briefly took over the border town of Arsal and were heading for the Christian village of Ras Baalbek. Thirty pickup trucks with heavy machine-guns came down from the Syrian mountains. Hundreds of fighters emerged from refugee camps inside the Lebanese border. The attackers were turned back “shocked” at one of the heavily fortified new posts paid for by the UK.

ISIS has had one success: attracting young Muslims from Western countries. Suicide attacks are usually carried out by foreigners, the IS’s “useful idiots”. One was Kabir Ahmed from Derby, who last month became the first British ISIS suicide bomber in Iraq. He is part of an Al Qaeda tradition that saw Saudi mujahideen in 1980s Afghanistan pitch white tents so Soviet bombers could spot them. The jihadi cult of death is nothing new.

The jihadi threat makes Sister Georgette, of the Good Shepherd Sisters of Lebanon, grateful for the Hezbollah. “They maintain discipline,” she says. “They keep the terrorists out.” I meet her at the Catholic charity she helps run, the St. Antoine dispensary. “We receive everybody,” she says. Such small charities are assuming a vital role with 1.5 million refugees in the country. The UN is overwhelmed and has had to cut food rations. On the day I visit, the Beirut Daily Star reports two babies dying of cold in a refugee camp.

Sister Georgette introduces me to two Christian women who have fled to Lebanon from Iraq with their families. Both weep when I ask them how they will spend Christmas. “We used to own a house with an orchard and a car,” says Iman Hermes. “Now we are beggars.” Her friend Ebtasam Kordees says her husband was a respected man in their village near Mosul. Now he cannot find work. “At least we were able to flee without our girls being violated, unlike the Yazidis,” she says. Both are terrified of the IS and say they will not return to Iraq or stay in Lebanon. They want the UN to speed up their paperwork to emigrate.

“We just want to leave.” Sister Georgette informs me sadly that every Christian refugee family she helps says the same. Lebanon might avoid a civil war, she goes on, but there will be fewer people celebrating Christmas next year, and the year after. “Chris-tians are leaving the Middle East,” she says. “It’s a pity. But it’s true.”

Paul Wood is a BBC Middle East correspondent
By arrangement with the Spectator

( Source : dc )
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