A Precarious Balancing Act: Lebanon and the Syrian Conflict (ICG)

Middle East Report N°132 22 Nov 2012 – International Crisis Group –Syria’s conflict is leaking out of its borders, but in few places are risks higher than in Lebanon. This is not just a matter of history, although history bodes ill: the country seldom has been immune to the travails of its neighbour. It also is a function of recent events, of which the most dramatic was the 19 October assassination of top security official Wissam Hassan, an illustration of the country’s fragility and the short-sightedness of politicians unwilling to address it.

Lebanon’s two principal coalitions see events in Syria in a starkly different light – as a dream come true for one; as a potentially apocalyptical nightmare for the other. It would be unrealistic to expect Lebanese actors to be passive in the face of what is unfolding next door. But it is imperative to shield the country as much as possible and resist efforts by third parties – whether allies or foes of Damascus – to drag the nation in a perilous direction. In the wake of Hassan’s assassination, this almost certainly requires a new, more balanced government and commitments by local and regional actors not to use Lebanese soil as an arena in which to wage the Syrian struggle.

From the Syrian crisis’s early days, there was every reason to expect that Lebanon, traditionally under its neighbour’s strong influence, would not long remain untouched. The two countries share a 365-kilometre, un-demarcated and largely porous border as well as extremely close communal ties. Syria’s regime has a history of lashing out when it feels under siege, coupled with a tradition of oftentimes violent interference in Lebanese affairs. Many were concerned from the start that Damascus would seek to destabilise its neighbour if only to weaken its foes across the border and warn the world of potential consequences of a protracted fight. Important Lebanese communities harbour deep resentment towards the regime’s conduct over the past decades; this is the case in particular of Sunnis in the north who feel solidarity with their Syrian brethren. Finally, sectarian tensions within Syria have their counterpart in Lebanon; as they rise in the former, so too do they mount in the latter. Lebanon’s factions clearly are aware of the stakes. Each wagers on success by one Syrian side or the other, waiting to translate the ensuing regional balance of power into a domestic one. Hizbollah hardly can contemplate a future with a fundamentally different Syrian regime, has tied its fate ever more tightly to its ally’s, and will not remain idle should Assad be in real jeopardy. Conversely, the Sunni-dominated Future Current and its partners see no alternative to the regime’s demise, however long it will take and no matter the costs. They view the uprising as doubly strategic: a golden opportunity to seek revenge against an antagonistic regime as well as a chance to challenge Hizbollah’s domestic hegemony. It is hard to see Lebanon’s fragile equilibrium surviving such a winner-take-all mentality. Already, signs of Syria’s spillover effects have been unmistakable. Border areas have been caught in the conflict, with weapons smuggling, refugee flows and attacks against Lebanese villages along the frontier coming from one side or the other, depending on the villagers’ political allegiances.

The stream of refugees has had humanitarian but also political and security consequences as Lebanese Sunnis, bearing witness to the increasing brutality and scorched earth policy of Assad’s regime, step up their involvement. Solidarity with their embattled brethren has led them to turn several regions into sanctuaries and transit points for the supply of weapons to, and staging ground for attacks by, Syrian rebel forces. This has been the case in the predominantly Sunni north, notably the border regions of Tripoli and Akkar, but also – to a lesser degree – in the eastern Bekaa Valley. Arms smuggling into Syria began as an improvised, chiefly commercial affair, but has greatly expanded, with the Future Current appearing to use Turkey as the hub for supporting armed opposition groups. More broadly, the Syrian uprising helped Islamist groups in both countries bolster their standing and mutual ties that had been debilitated if not severed in the 1980s.

Hizbollah too has entered the fray. It has had to balance competing considerations, defending the Syrian regime while safeguarding its posture in Lebanon not only at present, but also, possibly, in anticipation of eventual changes in Damascus. That is why it has, on the one hand, acquiesced in Prime Minister Najib Miqati’s policies even when they went against the interests of the Syrian regime and, on the other, provided that regime with practical support. There is much speculation and little hard evidence as to the scope of this assistance. Lebanon’s opposition and Syrian rebels long claimed that Hizbollah snipers were lending a hand to regime forces and killing protesters; U.S. officials likewise assert that Damascus, Hizbollah and Iran are in close military cooperation, even forming an elite militia. What seems clear is that the Shiite movement has intensified its involvement on the ground. How far it would go to salvage the regime is uncertain but, at a minimum, the message it wishes to send to outsiders is: far enough.

For now, notwithstanding these developments, prospects of a renewed civil war appear relatively remote. Though motivated by different interests, various parties have acted in ways that, by and large, limit the damage. Hizbollah continues to enjoy a lopsided military advantage, forcing its enemies to think twice before challenging it. Confrontation would not serve the Shiite organisation either, for it would attract further domestic and regional condemnation and isolation; for now, it has been intent on preserving the domestic status quo. Most significantly, none of Lebanon’s principal political camps want to test a disaster scenario, and all fear the unpredictable and unmanageable consequences of an escalating crisis. And so, even as they have found ways to intervene in the conflict next door, Lebanese politicians for the most part have displayed noticeable restraint.But fear of the consequences of escalation is a thin reed on which to place one’s hopes. Lebanese dynamics all point in the wrong direction. Even before the 19 October killing of Wissam Hassan, Sunnis were feeling gradually more emboldened, eager for revenge; Shiites more and more exposed, fearful of their growing regional isolation. Sectarian clashes have been on the rise, with the ever-present risk of cascading intercommunal violence. Among the most immediate dangers is the dominant political forces’ eroding ability to control their respective and increasingly polarised constituencies. Heightened insecurity and state impotence are leading many to take matters into their own hands, with tit-for-tat kidnappings and the erection of roadblocks that impede critical transportation routes.

It would be wrong to conclude that Lebanon has dodged the bullet. The country remains profoundly fragile and unstable. Without a strong central government capable of mastering events, violent strife could erupt in localised areas and spread. Both major coalitions have shown the limits of their ability to control their oftentimes more restive, angry and violent rank-and-file. Lebanon still is at the mercy of external interference.

In the longer term, Lebanon will have to cope with the outcome of a conflict that inevitably will have huge consequences, profoundly affecting virtually every major issue that has bedevilled the nation: relations with Israel; the status of minorities (notably Christians and Alawites); the Sunni-Shiite divide; Saudi-Iranian rivalry; as well as the rise and empowerment of Sunni Islamists. Added to this are the material consequences of the Syrian uprising, which has caused major strains on an already over-stretched economy.

Lebanese political actors typically have turned a blind eye to deep-rooted causes of the nation’s enduring instability: the nature of the power structure (a communal-based apportionment of power and privileges invariably leading to paralysis at best, conflict at worse); the contradictions of its external alliances (as some turned to the “axis of resistance” and others aligned themselves with the West); and the nature of the economic system (in theory geared toward a modern, globalised service industry, in practice built around antiquated forms of patronage, corruption and nepotism). Always costly, such an approach will prove costlier still in the wake of the strategic earthquake that resolution of the Syrian conflagration – one way or another – will produce. For it will bring to the surface this host of unresolved issues at a time when Lebanese local actors will be in no position to compromise, consider sensible solutions or do anything much other than hunker down.

How much precisely Syria’s evolution will affect Lebanon is not certain, but the short answer is: a lot. Apathy in the face of an incoming storm is understandable but short-sighted. For the ripple effects of Syria’s conflict, once the ensuing transformations will have had time to sink in, will be dramatic, brutal and, most likely, highly destabilising.


To prevent a short-term escalation of violence

To Lebanese Political Parties:

1.  Form a new government that:

    a) is composed of technocrats who are members of neither the March 14 nor March 8 coalitions and agree not to stand in the 2013 parliamentary elections;

    b) prepares for the 2013 elections; and

    c) commits to Lebanon’s abstention on all Syria-re­lated decisions at the UN, Arab League and other regional and international bodies.

2.  Commit to a quick, thorough and independent investigation of Wissam Hassan’s assassination, possibly with international technical assistance if necessary.

3.  Seek to insulate Lebanon from the impact of the Syrian conflict by, inter alia:

    a) refraining from direct involvement in that conflict, specifically Hizbollah stopping the dispatch of fighters and the Future Current halting the supply of weapons across the border;

    b) protecting border villages, possibly with more robust Lebanese army deployment combined with March 14 and March 8 outreach to their respective Syrian allies to halt Syrian army shelling and Syrian rebels’ use of these areas to smuggle arms and fighters; and

    c) ensuring adequate living conditions for Syrian refugees by providing humanitarian assistance; defining explicit rules under which security services can act against Syrian nationals while preventing arbitrary detention or deportation of opponents to Syria; and holding accountable Lebanese involved in the abduction, illegal arrest or ill-treatment of Syrian nationals.

To Regional and International States:

4.  Accept the current government’s and any future government’s “dissociation policy”, and refrain from pressuring Lebanon to adopt a more aggressive stance in favour of the Syrian regime or opposition.

5.  Refrain from using Lebanese territory to channel weapons from and to Syria.

6.  Assist refugees by increasing funding to the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, international and national organisations.

To UN Agencies and Non-governmental Organisations (NGOs):

7.  Extend humanitarian support to the most deprived Lebanese families and those hosting refugees in areas of high refugee presence.

8.  Involve Lebanese communities in the support of Syrian refugees by organising volunteer relief programs.

To address longer-term issues susceptible to provoke conflict or rise tensions within Lebanon

To Lebanese Political Parties:

9.  Ensure an immediate and fair judicial process for Islamist prisoners held in indefinite detention.

10.  Address the conflict between Tripoli’s Jabal Mohsen and Bab Tebbaneh districts by deploying the army between and within the two neighbourhoods; arresting militiamen engaging in provocative acts or violence; and improving basic services, notably public education.

11.  Bolster the army’s role and capacity, in particular by withdrawing any protection extended by Lebanese factions to their supporters found in breach of the law.

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