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The danger the Syrian Civil War poses to the stability of Lebanon

September 26, 2012

The Civil War in Syria presents a direct threat to the stability of Lebanon and could sow the seeds of an ethnic conflict in the nation. Since May 2012 there have been sporadic clashes between pro-Syrian and anti-Syrian factions in Lebanon, these factions have often also been split along sectarian lines (Hokaryem, 2012). There are numerous potential events that could push Lebanon into a sectarian conflict reminiscent of the 1975-1990 Civil War.

The problem the Syrian Civil War presents to Lebanon is that the main political fault line in Lebanon’s parliament, support and opposition to the Syrian Assad regime (and its influence in Lebanese politics), is being fought out militarily just beyond the nation’s border.

To fully appreciate how the conflict in Syria could tear apart Lebanon, it is necessary to understand Syria’s influence in Lebanon over the past three decades. Syria has been directly involved in Lebanese politics since invading the country in 1976 during the Lebanese Civil War. By the mid-2000s many in Lebanon saw the Syrian influence in Lebanon as oppressive. When the UNSC 1559 Resolution – which argued for the removal of all foreign armies, free elections and the disarmament of all militias – was adopted in Lebanon, Syria extended the pro-Syrian president’s term by three years in an attempt to retain hegemony (Knio, 2006: 229). The full extent of Lebanese anger at Syrian interference was revealed during the Cedar Revolution in the aftermath of the assassination of Sunni anti-Syrian politician Rafiq Hariri in 2005 (ibid: 225).The revolution succeeded in removing Syrian troops from Lebanon but split the Lebanese government into pro-Syrian and anti-Syrian blocs, named the March 8 Alliance and March 14 Alliance respectively.

Before the Syrian Civil War numerous anti-Syrian politicians and journalists, most notably Rafiq Hariri, were assassinated, possibly by the Syrian authorities (Sturcke, 2007). As a result the war has presented the anti-Syrian population of Lebanon with the opportunity to rid Lebanon of their oppressor and even the chance to settle scores with pro-Syrian rivals at home (Hokayem, 2012). For pro-Syrian candidates and Syrian supported groups such as Hezbollah, the possible collapse of the Assad regime would deprive them of their patron and sponsor.

This summers’ violence is not the first time since the Lebanese Civil War, or indeed in the past five years, that Lebanon has had to deal with armed conflict within its borders. There have been many such instances but, so far, Lebanon has managed to avoid descending into civil war.

In 2006 Hezbollah fought a war with Israel after kidnapping two Israeli soldiers. In 2007 the government fought a war with the predominantly foreign Islamist group, Fateh al-Islam, in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp (Ramadan, 2009). In both of those cases the conflict was between the state and a partly or entirely foreign entity, thus reducing the chances of a civil conflict developing.

In 2008, however, a situation with marked similarities to the current conflict emerged. On 6 May 2008 the government, dominated by the anti-Syrian March 14 Alliance, attempted to shut down Hezbollah’s telecommunications network as a violation of Lebanese sovereignty, a move that Hezbollah interpreted as an act of war (Fregonese, 2012). Hezbollah occupied neighborhoods while their Alawite supporters, in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, clashed with local Sunni’s who were largely supportive of the March 14 Alliance (ibid).

Numerous factors helped prevent the development of a Hezbollah-led anti-Government insurgency and a Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict in Tripoli. Firstly, leading politicians in the March 14 Alliance, such as Hariri and Jumblatt, forbade their supporters from engaging Hezbollah militarily (Shehadi, 2008). Hezbollah, since the Taif Agreement, has been the only political party with a militia (CNN, 2011). In prohibiting March 14 parties from militarizing, political leaders prevented political disagreement from being directly translated onto the battlefield. This was a dynamic that characterized the Lebanese Civil War. Furthermore, Hariri made a concerted effort to make cross-sectarian appeals in Tripoli, assuring the Alawite community, which traditionally votes against his bloc, “We are both Lebanese” (Ya Liban, 2008).

An even more significant factor in deescalating the 2008 conflict was the intervention of the army (Fregonese, 2012; Shehadi, 2008). By 2008, the army had acquired the reputation as Lebanon’s least sectarian and least politicized security force (Hokayem, 2012). The army was able to halt the Government’s attempt to break Hezbollah’s telecommunications network and, as a result, Hezbollah handed over to the army neighborhoods it had gained by force (Fregonese, 2012). Because the army was perceived as neutral and independent of Government, such an action was not interpreted as a defeat by Hezbollah or a victory by the March 14 Alliance. The army’s non-sectarian image allowed it to act as an impartial protector of both the Sunnis and the Alawites in Tripoli (Ya Liban, 2008).

Unfortunately the reputation of the army is very different today. The army’s non-sectarian image has been heavily shaken by the shooting of prominent Sunni cleric and Assad critic Abdul-Wahed at an army checkpoint (Dakroub, 2012). Hariri, now in opposition, argued “We do not blame the Lebanese Army as a whole for the killing … but it is clear that there are some infiltrators involved in this killing who want to use the [military] establishment and its symbol to import the Syrian regime’s crisis … to Lebanon in a desperate attempt to save it from its inevitable doom” (ibid).

The incident led to the army being recalled from Tripoli where it was acting as a peacekeeping force between warring Sunni and Alawite residents. Prime Minister Mikati has tried to relegitimize the army by launching an internal investigation into the shooting which led to arrests (ibid).  This attempt was undermined however when Rifaat Eid, an Alawite and staunch supporter of Assad, called for the army to be redeployed to Tripoli (Dakroub, 2012). This has given further credence to the perception that the army may no longer be an impartial protector but a vehicle for promoting the pro-Syrian agenda.

Other parts of the Lebanese security apparatus are also perceived as politicized. The Lebanese General Security Directorate (GSD), which arrested Sunni anti-Assad activist Mawlawi, has been accused of being an arm of Hezbollah (Hokayem, 2012). Other arms of the Lebanese security services have assisted in the rendition of dissidents to Syria, enraging the country’s anti-Assad community (ibid).

There is therefore a danger of the situation developing where there is no body that can play the army’s traditional role of legitimate peacekeeper,  no neutral body through which opposing political and sectarian factions can mediate. A lack of army and state security legitimacy in turn legitimizes the formation of extra-state militias and rebellion to offer protection. This process has been witnessed in other conflicts. In Croatia, President Tudjman’s purging of Serbs in the police and his party’s implication in orchestrating rocket attacks on Serb-dominated Borovo Selo, helped legitimize the formation of local Serb militias (Sibler and Little, 1995: 148-155). In Northern Ireland, the Royal Ulster Constabulary was accused of taking part in attacks on Catholic civil rights marches and accepting the assistance of Protestant mobs during the Battle of Bogside (White, 1989: 1283-1294). As a result many Catholic communities saw the RUC as incapable of providing impartial protection and sought security in Republican militias.

The Lebanese Army has had its legitimacy shaken before.  In 1969 the army used Maronite militias to break the power of Palestinian guerrillas in the camps surrounding Beirut (Hudson, 1978: 265) leading to the army being perceived as a tool of the Maronite political agenda. As a result the army was unable to keep the peace during the demonstrations in Sidon against the, mostly Maronite, corporate domination of the local fishing industry (El Khazen, 2000: 275). The army was suspected by the Sidon protesters to be responsible for the shooting of the local leftist Sunni politician, Maroof Saad, and became the target of Sunni resentment and bullets (ibid). This challenge to the legitimacy of the army prevented it from becoming an effective peacekeeping force during the Lebanese Civil War. Could the same thing happen again today?

Mikati has taken the right step by investigating the shooting of Abdul-Wahed, but there are a limited number of times such mistakes can occur before the Sunni community in Tripoli begins to see the army as a security risk rather than a security provider. The army re-entered Tripoli after a new wave of Sunni-Alawite violence in late August. Unfortunately another Sunni cleric has been shot and, should the army once again emerge as the culprit, it may be unable to regain the trust of Tripoli’s Sunni community and act as a peacekeeper in the city (BBC, 2012). Local Sunni gangs have vocalised their distrust of the government as a Syrian Quisling state and have said that violence will continue while remains a slave to Syrian interests (Prothero, 2012).

Another factor that increases the chance of full scale ethnic conflict is that groups such as Lebanese Alawites and Sunni Syrian refugees act as an ethnically defined totem of a particular political identity, pro-Assad and anti-Assad respectively. During the Civil War the Palestinians were “living proof of the organic link between Lebanon and the Arab world” (Odeh, 1985: 108). This ethnically embodied political identity may explain why pro-West, right-wing Christian militias repeatedly targeted Palestinian civilians. Similarly the majority of skirmishes in Tripoli seem to be between local Sunnis and Alawites. These attacks could quickly escalate into a purely sectarian conflict where the primary motivation is not political disagreement but the desire to exact communal revenge upon an entire sect.

Perhaps the most dangerous threat to the stability of Lebanon is a large scale and violent incursion by mainly Sunni the Free Syrian Army (FSA) into Lebanese territory. This would cause four problems. Firstly, an attack by a group that is openly anti-Assad and possesses the resources to carry out a large scale atrocity against his Lebanese supporters, would help instill further fear into the Lebanese Alawite minority and may provoke them into attacking Syrian refugees, especially Sunnis, on suspicion of FSA membership.

Secondly, an FSA presence would challenge Hezbollah as the only large scale militia active in Lebanon, a challenge Hezbollah is unlikely to accept. The sectarian schism between much of the FSA and Hezbollah, the former is mainly Sunni and the latter is Shiite, means that an ideological conflict between the two organizations could easily be sectarianized.

Thirdly, the presence of the FSA in Lebanon could provoke the Syrian army to attack Lebanese soil. This could force the Lebanese army to remove FSA guerillas from Lebanon and further politicize the army as an enforcer for the pro-Syrian agenda. Anti-Assad Lebanese civilians who suffer from Syrian army attacks may be further radicalized against the current Lebanese government, which is perceived as pro-Syrian. Syrian troops could even use FSA activity in Lebanon as a pretext for reinvading and occupying part of the country. This would increase anger among the anti-Syrian population, deepen political cleavages in government and may embolden pro-Assad sects in Tripoli to up their attacks and settle scores.

Similar dynamics happened just before the Lebanese Civil War when Palestinian attacks on Israel from their camps in South Lebanon invited Israeli retaliation onto Lebanese soil. Attempts by the government and army to limit the power of the Palestinians were met with hostility from the pro-Palestinian elements of Lebanese society and sparked riots (Hudson, 1987: 263). On the other hand anti-Palestinian militias used the Israeli retaliations as a pretext for attacking Palestinian camps and their Lebanese supporters (Odeh, 1985: 119).

Lastly, Syria may decide to use local proxies, such as the Lebanese Alawites and Hezbollah, to attack the FSA and Syrian Sunni refugees suspected of opposition membership. Hezbollah is already providing fighters for the Assad regime and is militarily engaging the FSA in Syria (Wright and Hider, 2012). If Hezbollah decides on military action in Lebanon, anti-Assad parties may decide that it is insecure to have Hezbollah as the sole armed party in Lebanon and start to militarize.

So far there have been two minor FSA incursions into Lebanese territory where they apparently attacked an army post and clashed with the Lebanese Army, luckily there have been no casualties (The Daily Star, 2012). However an unspecified number of FSA commandos were captured and were detained (ibid). Local notables sympathetic to the FSA pressured the government for the commando’s release (ibid). President Sleiman praised the army and parties from both blocs have argued that the border should be patrolled to stop the smuggling of arms and gunmen (ibid). However the presence of Hezbollah snipers in Syria combined with the army’s detention of FSA gunmen means that the Government’s attempt to secure the border appears one-sided and partisan.  The army, in an effort to maintain its neutral status, claimed that it would prevent any violation of Lebanese sovereignty, regardless of the offending party (ibid). This raises questions of whether the army would fight attempts by the Syrian Army to encroach on Lebanese territory. If such an eventuality occurred the big question is whether Hezbollah would assist the Lebanese Army in expelling Assad’s troops or help the Syrian Army in occupying parts of Lebanon. If Hezbollah assisted the latter Lebanon could be plunged into a civil conflict between Hezbollah and the Lebanese armed forces.

For the moment, the conflict in the Lebanon is still low level and not yet fully sectarianized. There are many current factors acting against the escalation and complete sectarianizedation of the conflict. There have been intra-sectarian political conflicts in several parts of the country revolving around support for the Assad regime but these clashes have not garnered the same media attention as the Sunni-Alawite skirmishes in Tripoli (Fisk, 2012). This indicates that the conflict in some areas of Lebanon is still primarily a political matter and has not yet been fully sectarianized. Additionally, the fact that the majority of the parties in the two political blocs have not got militias has prevented the militarisation of political discourse that was witnessed during the Lebanese Civil War.

The government has sought to retain integrity and impartiality through public actions such as investigating the death of Abdul-Wahed and arresting former information minister Michel Samaha, a close ally of Assad, for conspiring to carry out a series of bombings (Anderson, 2012; Dakroub, 2012). Lastly, the army is still attempting to act as a peacekeeping force rather than disintegrating along sectarian and political lines as seen during the Civil War (Odeh, 1985: 153-161).

Nevertheless, there are a few potential developments that could throw Lebanon into a full scale sectarian conflict: a wide scale perception that the army is no longer the neutral, which has saved Lebanon in the past; an escalation in sectarian attacks, especially upon Alawites or Syrian refugees; an influx of FSA and Syrian resistance personnel onto Lebanese soil. Unfortunately all these development are now not only looking possible but probable: the Army has been criticised as partisan, attacks in Tripoli continue and the FSA has started to breach the Syrian-Lebanese border.

References

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