Welcome to one of the most beautiful, vibrant — and dangerous — countries on the planet.
Walid Phares, Ph.D. is a Middle East expert and Lebanese expatriate who runs an international affairs consultancy in Washington, D.C. Asked what effect he saw the Syrian civil war having on Lebanon, he answered, "Destabilizing.”
He explained, “On the one hand, a large flow of refugees is entering the country every day, putting tremendous economic and social stress on Lebanon's already weakened economy. But also the polarization due to the civil war of Syria is creating a parallel battlefield in Lebanon.
"Salafi militias from Lebanon are crossing the border to fight the Assad regime and Hezbollah fighters are sent to Syria to support the Assad regime. Eventually these two forces will clash widely on Lebanese soil,” he predicted.
But nevertheless, Lebanon is still open for business. “Lebanon has tremendous business opportunities both for foreigners, including Arabs and Westerners, and for Lebanese émigrés,” Phares continued. “But again, security aside, the country was and can reemerge to the status of the 'cultural Paris' or 'financial London' of the region. But the state of security renders the flow of business opportunities unsure.”
He pointed out that a fleet of business jets owned and operated by Arab businessmen continues to flow in and out of Beirut. “Some Lebanese politicians also have their own business jets. But as far as Western businessmen are concerned, there are extremely rare visits in their business jets. At this stage, only necessary travel for Western business leaders to Lebanon should be considered.”
There are about 14 business aircraft based at Beirut in the general aviation area of the airport. Three of them are in Lebanese registry with the remainder registered in other countries. “Most businesses that operate aircraft [in Lebanon] keep them elsewhere,” Al Naqbi said. “AOCs [commercial Air Operating Certificates] are issued to any company using business aviation. However, in Lebanon, an AOC is somewhat different from the norm in that anyone dealing with aviation, private or commercial, has to have one. Charter companies are also active there — EAS [Executive Aircraft Services] is an example, operating four aircraft. The general aviation part of the airport is isolated from the commercial area. It is very secure.”
Syria, meanwhile, has no business aviation operations of its own. “Most of the CAAs [civil aviation authorities] in the Middle East have issued notifications to airlines not to fly over Syria,” Al Naqbi said. “As a result, your flight to Lebanon will be longer because of this restriction.” Indeed it will, depending on your direction of arrival, as now Syria, like Israel, cannot be over-flown. (Israel, of course, for political reasons: Almost all Middle East countries refuse any aircraft that has taken off from or over-flown Israel to enter their airspace.)
An Ottoman Empire-era Syrian province, Lebanon was sectioned out of Syria in 1920 by the French, who had acquired a mandate over the territory after World War I. In 1943, it was granted independence and emerged on the world stage as the Lebanese Republic. As in so many cases where a western empire has drawn political lines on a map (e.g. Iraq), these artificial constructs often embrace ethnicities or tribes that are widely disparate in their beliefs, be they religious, political or racial.
While Lebanon's population of just over four million is of mostly Arabic descent, these peoples' religious faiths break down roughly as 60% Muslim and 40% Christian, which is highly unusual in the Arabic Middle East. However, within those two poles, their loyalties further parse out to five Muslim sects and at least 11 Christian ones. And as everywhere on the planet, each denomination holds its beliefs adamantly and is frequently in tension with other groups and their belief systems.
So, it wasn't surprising when a largely religious war ignited in Lebanon in 1975 between a coalition of Christian groups and an alliance made up of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), the Druze and various Muslim sects. The war raged for 15 years.
The recent Syrian incursion in Lebanon is not the first time, as Syria wasted no time in 1976 sending its troops into Lebanon — ostensibly to maintain order — only a year after the war started. They remained there until 2005, when a provision of the Ta'if Accord, which had ended the civil war in 1990, called for them to withdraw, and Syria observed the decree and retreated behind its borders. The war was hugely destructive to Lebanon, leveling portions of Beirut and killing an estimated 150,000 people. Business and trade essentially stopped during the 15-year period, as did civil air transportation.
Beirut rebounded from the war quickly, fostering a reconstruction building boom, and business slowly revived. But peace and stability were short-lived. Hezbollah, the Iranian-organized and funded terrorist organization whose raison d'etre was to torment Israel and, by extension, the U.S., kidnapped two Israeli soldiers in 2006, precipitating a 34-day skirmish in which Israel conducted a widespread bombing campaign that included cratering all three runways at Beirut-Rafic Hariri International Airport and destroying its fuel farm. More than 1,200 civilians died in this short conflict, which was ended by U.N. resolution the same year.
Once again, reconstruction began. “There has been a dense but targeted reconstruction wave of Lebanon's downtown by the Hariri Group, particularly in the mid- to late 1990s,” Phares said. “That part of the capital has been almost totally renovated. But other parts of Beirut and the suburbs have undergone 'over construction' waves. After the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, most destroyed bridges and buildings have been rebuilt.” Beirut International Airport also was repaired and returned to service as quickly as possible to accept tourists and businesspersons.
Other periods of violence have intermittently flared in Lebanon through the decades and to the present day. Hezbollah, which also postures as a political party, runs much of Lebanon outside of Beirut, even providing a variety of social aid and services to rural communities, while a parliamentary government in the capital theoretically maintains control of the country.