Wary of Syria spillover

The future of Lebanon is closely linked to the fate of its intimidating neighbor Syria.

Wary of Syria spillover (photo credit: SHARIF KARIM / REUTERS)
Wary of Syria spillover
(photo credit: SHARIF KARIM / REUTERS)
Across much of Lebanon, you would hardly notice that Syria, its sizable next-door-neighbor and the source of many a controversy here in the land of the cedars, is in the throes of a bloody civil uprising. The capital Beirut, which was the scene of an outbreak of violence that left three dead in late May, still bustles as patrons swarm Place De L’Etoile in the heart of the swanky downtown area, drinking fancy coffee drinks and ordering cakes.
In Bcharre, perched high above in the picturesque Lebanese mountains, crowds gather at the museum of Lebanese-American poet and artist Khalil Gibran to pay homage to the country’s most famous son, responsible for one of the greatest selling books of all time, The Prophet. In Byblos, too, just 22 miles north of Beirut, the warm evening air is filled with relaxed chatter and the sweet smell of bubbling nargilehs.
That Lebanon, rife with sectarianism, politically and economically fragile and jaded by years of conflict, is itself no stranger to civil and political unrest is surely one reason for this apparent sense of calm and business as usual. Since the end of its bloody 15-year civil war in 1990, the country has been the scene of sporadic bouts of violence, including the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005 and the 34-day Israel-Hizballah war one year later, which claimed the lives of some 1,000 Lebanese – mostly civilians – and 159 Israelis, mainly soldiers.
Randa Slim, a Lebanese-American political analyst, author and democracy activist, is one of many who has voiced concerns over Lebanon’s sectarian reaction to events in Syria, whose capital Damascus is only 80 miles from Beirut. Lebanon is divided into two main political camps, the March 8 pro-Syrian camp, and the March 14, prosovereignty and anti-Syrian camp.
“Politically, the Syrian crisis is deepening the divisions between March 14 and March 8,” she tells The Jerusalem Report. “It is also exacerbating the Sunni-Shi'ite sectarian tensions in the country. The Shi'ites still mostly side with the Syrian regime and President Bashar Assad, whereas the Sunnis stand on the side of the Syrian opposition. Inside Lebanon, the Syrian conflict is increasingly viewed through a sectarian lens. The Syrian refugees in Lebanon are straining an already weak social service network. People are more and more blaming the wave of petty crimes that are affecting all regions in the country on the Syrian refugees.”
Violence has already begun to spill over the border. At least 10 Lebanese were killed in Tripoli in early June in clashes between supporters and opponents of the Syrian government. In late May, Shi'ite demonstrators burned tires and marched in southern Beirut and the central Bekaa Valley after 11 Lebanese Shi'ites were kidnapped inside Syria. Activists in Aleppo said the men were affiliated with Hizballah, which has staunchly supported the Syrian government.
Others said they were Shi'ite pilgrims who had been visiting holy sites.
The same week, a Sunni Muslim cleric who opposed the Assad regime was shot and killed in Tripoli, sparking new clashes that spread to Beirut and left three people dead.
Also in May, the Lebanese navy intercepted a shipment of arms bound for Syrian rebels.
Hizballah, the heavily armed and influential player in Lebanon also supports Syria, although Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah called for calm, saying, “We don’t want to create a conflict.”
With more than 20,000 Syrian refugees now living in Lebanon, there have been political problems, too. Writing in Al Jazeera online, Dr. Alia Brahimi, a research fellow at the London School of Economics, noted that the “sensitivities about Lebanon’s new guests are deeply rooted in Lebanon’s political system as well its psyche”.
“First, an uncomfortable precedent was set by the 400,000 Palestinian refugees who have lived for decades in camps around the country of roughly four million citizens,” observed Brahimi. “Second, Lebanon’s unease is explained by the pro-Syrian orientation of the March 8 bloc, which currently dominates the government.”
The Syrian civil war is straining Lebanon’s much smaller economy as well. With Syria essentially Lebanon’s door to the Arab world, the crisis has impacted Lebanon’s import-export trade making the transport of goods more expensive. Tourism, too, has suffered, because during the summer months many Arab tourists usually come to Lebanon overland by car, but last year many were reluctant to travel through Syria. This summer will be even worse, observers say.
Ahmad Abdullah (not his real name), a retired doctor from Sidon, in Lebanon’s south, says most Lebanese are instinctively averse to war and will do everything it can to avoid being sucked into Syria’s domestic troubles.
“Politically, Syria dominated Lebanon for years – mainly because of the fragile political setup in Lebanon of which Syria and many others took advantage,” the 64-year-old tells The Report. “Things have changed now for several reasons: firstly, with the instability in Syria the Assad family’s grip is loosening; and they are not as formidable as they used to be.
Whatever the outcome of the current unrest in Syria, they will not come out unscathed.
Secondly, successive assassinations, which took the lives of prominent figures here, were blamed, rightly or wrongly, on Syria. And, lastly, Lebanon has no appetite for internal civil strife. The only lesson we learned from 15 years of civil war is not to fight again.”
Relations between Lebanon and Syria have traditionally been fraught. Both countries were part of the Byzantine Empire, both fell under the yoke of the Ottoman Empire – with the Ottoman province of Greater Syria encompassing present-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian territories, and parts of what is now Turkey – and on its collapse at the end of World War I, both were brought under the control of France.
Both, too, were granted their independence from colonial rule at around the same time – Lebanon in 1943, Syria in 1946. Syria, which was part of the ill-fated United Arab Republic (UAR ) with Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, was involved in Lebanon’s brutal and bloody civil war, beginning in 1976 when it dispatched troops in an attempt to restore peace, and during the 1980s it had some 30,000 soldiers stationed in the country.
It wasn’t until 2005, however, and following the murder of two-time premier Hariri in a massive car bomb attack in Lebanon’s capital on Valentine’s Day that the popular “Cedar Revolution” sparked into life, driving the remaining 14,000 or so Syrian troops from Lebanese soil, as the finger of blame for the assassination, which not only claimed the life of Hariri but of some 20 others, fell on the Syrian regime. Four Hizballah members have since been charged with the atrocity.
The reaction of ordinary citizens to the Syrian troubles is determined by how they fit into the complex Lebanese mosaic.
“In Hizballah strongholds, such as Beirut’s southern suburbs, they are sympathetic to the Syrian regime and especially to Assad,” Slim notes. “They have bought into the regime narrative spun daily by Al Manar, Hizballah’s TV channel, that this is not a wide-scale nonviolent protest movement, but acts of violence caused by a few armed groups funded by outside forces, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar.”
But the vast majority of Sunnis share the conviction that the Syrian regime is mounting a ruthless crackdown against non-violent protesters who are demanding freedom and democracy.
“They share the March 14 leadership’s perspective that the fall of Assad will result in the weakening of Hizballah’s capacity to shape events inside Lebanon. From this side of the Lebanese street, the Syrian revolution is a net gain for their cause,” says Slim.
Lebanese Christians, who make up between 40 and 60 percent of Lebanon’s population, according to different estimates, are divided on the issue.
“The Maronites and the other Christian denominations are part of this decisive Arab struggle, albeit on different sides,” Ibrahim al-Amin, editor-in-chief of the Beirut-based Al-Akhbar newspaper recently observed.
“The church, along with the Free Patriotic Movement and a number of influential Christian figures and political forces, dreads the downfall of the regime in Damascus...On the other hand, the Lebanese Forces and other March 14 Christians want to join the campaign led by the US and the Gulf states, and in which Sunni Islamists play a preeminent role.”
“Politicians, of all ideological stripes, agree that the crisis in Syria, if it were to degenerate into a sectarian war, is bound to spill over into Lebanon,” says Slim. “There is a serious concern among many Lebanese politicians that limited acts of sectarian violence in a few areas in the country could spin out of control and become a catalyst for larger, widespread civil strife.
“They agree that the state of peace and stability that exists today in Lebanon could unravel very quickly.”