The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An epic Mideast sandstorm might have helped Syrian rebels

Syrian children walk amid the dust during a sandstorm at a refugee camp on the outskirts of the eastern Lebanese city of Baalbek. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

September usually brings cooling rains to parts of the summer-scorched Middle East. This year, it’s brought a massive cloud of choking dust.

An unseasonal and unusually intense sandstorm has enveloped much of the region, producing far more than just itchy eyes, poor visibility and dust-coated vehicles. The haze has affected the battle plans of warring parties in Syria, shut down Egyptian ports and caused respiratory-related deaths in Lebanon. In Israel, authorities have warned people to stay indoors.

The khaki-colored plume that originated Monday in Iraq has even migrated beyond the Arab world, causing sand to fall on homes and sidewalks in Cyprus.

In Beirut, the Lebanese capital, some residents have been venturing outdoors wearing surgical masks. “You have to wear a mask because it’s so intense. There’s more dust than oxygen!” said Hussein Daiss, 24, who donned a light-blue mask while walking near downtown Thursday.

The timing, intensity and duration of the sandstorm have surprised meteorologists. Such storms usually happen during the spring, last a day or two and then dissipate, said Marc Wehaibe, a meteorologist who works at Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport. This one has lingered longer than most had expected. “It’s exceptional,” he said.

The dust appears to have aided rebel movements in Syria’s civil war. On Wednesday, fighters from al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra used the haze as cover to capture a large airbase in the Idlib province from Syrian government forces, said Abed Qintar, an activist from the area who is monitoring the fighting. “The sandstorm meant that the regime’s air force was blind to the resistance movements on the ground,” he said, speaking by telephone.

In Egypt, low visibility forced authorities to close four ports Wednesday, according to the state news agency MENA. On the same day, Lebanese authorities closed schools and government offices. The Health Ministry says the storm has produced respiratory complications that have killed several people and hospitalized more than 2,500.

The less fortunate – including large numbers of Syrian refugees – have endure the storm without access to adequate medical care and shelter.

Syrian refugees Mohammed Saman, 47, his wife and their nine children have spent the past few days scrunched together in their small tent in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. He had to do more than just repeatedly clean the gunk out of his young children’s eyes and ears. He had to monitor for signs of heat exhaustion, he said. On Friday, temperatures in the area reached 96 degrees.

“We’ve already suffered so much, and now it feels like even nature is against us,” said Saman, who has lived in the tent with his family for more than two years.

There were glimmers of hope Friday as the sun started piercing Beirut’s overcast skies. It probably marked the beginning of the end of what was mostly just a nuisance for Raymonda Saadeh, a manager of a boutique pastry shop in the city’s Hamra district.

“You just have to clean, clean and clean,” she said, pointing to the dusty film covering her store’s counters. “But look, the situation could be a lot worse than this.”

Al Nusra Front fighters seize Abu al-Duhur military base in Idlib province, in a major victory for the insurgents, reported the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Deborah Gembara reports. (Video: Reuters)

Sam Alrefaie and Suzan Haidamous in Beirut and Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem contributed to this report.