With international attention focused on the crisis in Syria, it is easy to overlook Lebanon. But it all began with the Lebanese. If not for their awakening in 2005, there might not have been an Arab Spring. It may now be a distant memory for some – against the backdrop of recent regime change in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya – but Martyrs’ Square in downtown Beirut started it all.
In rising up against Syrian overlords in 2005, the Lebanese proved to the Arab street what citizens gathered in common cause could accomplish. Breaking the fear barrier – the most potent weapon in the despot’s arsenal – the Lebanese proved the fragility of Arab dictatorship, and charted the roadmap for 2011’s Arab uprisings.
Some observers saw the Bush administration’s overthrow of Saddam Hussein as a catalyst to events, but after 30 years of Syrian occupation the Lebanese needed little external motivation. The assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005 proved the tipping point.
Pouring into Beirut from across the country in their hundreds of thousands on March 14th of that year to demand Syrian withdrawal, scenes of flag-waving Lebanese reclaiming their country quickly found resonance across a region long starved of freedom, inspiring a new generation of Arab activists.
While the spirit of Beirut’s hope-filled days six years ago continues to reverberate throughout the Arab World, in the place where it all began popular aspirations remain unfulfilled (and under new threats).
Political assassination bearing Syria’s fingerprint, Hezbollah’s provocations against Israel and the Iranian- backed movement’s armed blackmail of domestic political rivals all conspired to spoil the fruits of Lebanon’s own Spring.
HAVING ONLY recently emerged from behind communal barricades, Lebanon’s moderate political leaders were soon found fleeing back to more familiar surroundings. Hopes that Syria’s withdrawal might usher in an era of national reconciliation in the multicultural mix that is Lebanon were dashed by the revival of historic misconceptions of the “other,” which Hezbollah, encouraged by Syria and Iran, successfully stoked to its advantage.
While a victory at the 2009 parliamentary polls of the March 14th coalition briefly rekindled hope, a new administration in Washington intent on detente with Lebanon’s tormentors in Damascus and Tehran did little to bolster the self-confidence of Lebanese moderates. Lacking external assurances commensurate to those possessed by Hezbollah, the country’s pro-Western political leadership soon fell back on habits borne of survival instincts honed over centuries of living in a tough neighborhood with few options.
In January 2011, the leader of Lebanon’s minority Druse community and a prominent critic of the Syrian- Iranian axis withdrew his backing for the pro- Western government of which he was a founding member. With the White House extolling the Syrian leadership’s reformist inclinations and popular frustrations yet to seethe on Syrian streets, the Druse patriarch played the hand calculated to be in his community’s best interest. If that meant seeking accommodation with his own father’s assassins in Damascus, so be it; survival as a minority in the Middle East has never come cheaply.
The Druse chief is singing a slightly different tune in mid-2012; no doubt enjoying Bashar Assad’s current discomfort and future uncertainty. But collapse of the Syrian regime need not signal the end of Lebanon’s existential worries. Losing their Syrian patron, Hezbollah might feel compelled to up the ante. This is the fear of many Lebanese for whom the movement’s war with Israel in 2006 is a fresh memory: that the Party of God, egged on by Tehran, may go for broke.
Lebanese also fear rising extremism within the Sunni camp, a result of factors including the suffering of coreligionists in Syria at the hands of the Assads. In the north of the country, violence has already erupted along the very religious fault lines which are defining the conflict inside Syria, threatening to plunge Lebanon once again into sectarian chaos.
Off the radar for much of the Arab Spring, it might be tempting for Western policy makers to overlook Lebanon. Still recovering from last year’s popular uprisings in North Africa, and with unrest now flaring in neighboring Syria, and simmering in Bahrain and Yemen, Washington arguably has limited bandwidth for another Middle East crisis. And yet, long the proxy battlefield for the region’s competing ideologies, Lebanon’s strategic value to the West’s adversaries is only increasing daily – in direct correlation with the deteriorating situation in Syria.
The options may be few but absent a more assertive international response to Syria’s unrest and proactive measures to isolate Lebanon from the spillover effects, including support of its moderate political leadership, it is only time before the Lebanese are once again grabbing the headlines; albeit under circumstances likely to prove less favorable to the region and the West than in 2005.
The writer was a senior adviser in the Office of the Middle East Partnership Initiative at the US Department of State during the administration of George W. Bush, 2004- 2009.