BEIRUT — I sometimes give her money, but mostly, I like to buy her fruit juice and chocolates. Employees at a shawarma stand sneak her small pita rollups with meat and vegetables when she shows up on Jeanne D’Arc Street every morning to run her curbside concession, holding up a packet or two of chewing gum for sale. No pedestrian has the heart to take her pitiful wares after they have paid. Her head of brown curls disappears across the street when she leaves, another Syrian child begging in the Lebanese capital. What lies ahead for 5-year-old Aya?
Aya is one of 200,000 Syrian children going without school this fall, according to Lebanon-based U.N. officials. “We are losing a whole generation,” a UNICEF official told visiting journalists at one of the many dust-blown settlements housing Syrians who have fled to Lebanon. A handicapped Syrian boy, limp and pale with wide, expressionless eyes, no older than 6 or 7, is pushed through traffic on a wheelbarrow. Some motorists roll down their windows to give. Others turn away, overwhelmed by so many similar scenes Beirutis are no longer accustomed to. Syrian Bedouin women squatting on pavements in the midday sun, cradling newborn infants swaddled in rags, dot the side streets off the hip Hamra quarter, which brims with new pubs, wifi cafes, bistros and nail spas. Well-to-do Syrian families huddle together at the yacht-studded Zeitouney Bay’s Babel eatery, seeking a sense of community, traditional Arabic food and a soothing sea breeze to forget what they left behind.
Beirut has become a microcosm of Syria’s misery and a terrified population on the move. An able-bodied man lugging a brass shoe-polish box walks up to me and an American friend sipping coffee. “I am hungry,” he says in English, not offering to shine any shoes. Barefoot teenage boys with blackened faces and shredded trousers that they have long outgrown add a Dickensian dimension to a city of gleaming highrises, new boutiques and mushrooming art galleries.
As the Syrian drama unfolds with more airstrikes targeting cities and schools, self-congratulation on clinching a chemical weapons agreement has dominated international headlines and overshadowed the grinding horrors, dislocation and pain that Syrians are enduring. One hopes there will be no more chemical attacks. Yet Washington missed a window to link the deal to an end to hostilities while it had the attention of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Will Russia and, now Iran, continue to do Assad’s bidding within the framework of a Geneva II conference?
American outrage and resolve with respect to the carnage wilted to avert a veto by Russia, and probably China, postponing the challenges entailed in acting more decisively.
Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani both noted that the Syrian crisis cannot be solved by military means, yet neither of them committed to stopping their countries’ assistance to the warring sides with arms, combat training and advice. Iranian flights carrying weapons and fighters to boost the Assad regime are still crossing Iraqi airspace to Syria, as Iraq’s foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, acknowledged in an interview in New York with the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper. Iran’s ruling clergy, regardless of Rouhani’s charm offensive, sees the Damascus regime as a conduit to regional influence through Lebanon’s Party of God, Hezbollah, which is fighting for Assad along with Tehran’s own crack Quds Force against rebels on strategic fronts in Syria.
A cynical palliative to the specter of a punitive strike has to be the lesser of two evils: the stepped-up dispatch of more weapons to secular opponents of Assad and his entrenched military and security apparatus. The international community’s indecision and apparent reluctance to alter the balance of power in Syria drove thousands of rebel fighters to abandon the umbrella of the Western-backed and mostly secular Syrian National Alliance to join forces with radical Islamist groups linked to al-Qaeda in northern Syria.
“It is like this bloody wrestling scene in ‘Django Unchained,’ ” observed Rita Almaalof, a Syrian television anchor now working for Sky News Arabia in the Gulf emirate of Abu Dhabi. More ammunition is gushing in to both sides to keep them fighting, she said, explaining the analogy to the scene from the Tarantino movie. Almaalof, 27, a Syrian Christian and a former leading news anchor at home, left her country three months before the uprising began 30 months ago. “I was yearning for a change, and it was just not happening,” she said by telephone from Abu Dhabi. She said she had cordial relations with all sides before leaving. “I am against being anybody’s faithful follower. I am for humanity,” she added, noting that those were her personal views, not those of her employer.
Would a well-orchestrated strike to degrade Syria’s chemical and conventional weapons have led to the humbling of loyalist forces? Many liberal Syrians and intellectuals agonize over that question. It is plain that the American people and their president do not have the stomach for war against Syria. “But as a Syrian,” Almaalof said, “I believe an outside hit would be better than civil war, this disease that is festering in the body of the Syrian nation.”
She added: “The only solution would be [the regime] giving up authority under international supervision and sponsorship.”
The Russian-U.S. deal was hammered out with backslapping bonhomie between Syrian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his counterpart, Secretary of State John Kerry. “As if 100,000 people were not killed before the 1,400 or so in the chemical attack,” lamented one Syrian intellectual and author who crosses into Syria regularly. Almaalof sounded equally mystified by the focus solely on Syria’s chemical arsenal: “This is just one of the weapons used,” she said. “Everyone shifted from condemnation to praise. The accused is now in good standing. What about accountability or the real tragedy? Stop arms shipments or carry out a military blow that would end the crisis.” While capping a diplomatic coup, the U.N. Security Council resolution has done nothing to stop airstrikes and the forced migration of Syrians from their homes.
Fighting no longer rages just between bands of rebels and brigades of the Damascus government. Combat in the northern Syrian countryside has expanded to include secular freedom fighters who initially sought reforms and al-Qaeda-inspired zealots driven by ideology and greed for territory and resources from rich Gulf patrons.
So, more wars.
Syrian society, turned inside out, is on an epic exodus to nearby countries, or at least those, such as Lebanon, whose borders are still open. Driven out by a stampede of blind blood-letting, low-income urban dwellers, Kurds, Bedouin families, middle-class professionals, money changers, taxi drivers, barefoot children roaming the streets for handouts, students cut off from home and, yes, the moneyed elite are all at the mercy of others’ tolerance, disdain or wariness of outsiders. About one-third of Syria’s population of 23 million is living in forced exile. In Lebanon, Syrians make up a quarter of the population.
One day when I was desperately trying to find a parking space, a Syrian man with graying hair offered to help me with an automated parking meter. He nudged the machine to dispense my ticket. He walked me to my car, advising me to put the time slip inside, not outside on the windshield, so no one would steal it.
Grateful, I gave him a couple of dollars, 3000 Lebanese pounds. “I have nothing,” he murmured. “I have a family of seven to feed. We had to leave Aleppo.” I handed him another 10 dollars. His diligent effort to earn what he was begging for and his shame haunt me.
Nora Boustany is a former Washington Post correspondent and columnist who now lives in Beirut, where she writes and teaches journalism at the American University of Beirut.