Lebanonís Security Concerns over Syria (Washington Institute) PolicyWatch #1916 By Nicholas Blanford 03/30/12)
WASHINGTON INSTITUTE Articles-Index-Top
Given Lebanonís deep political divisions and traditional subservience
to Damascus, the West should not expect too much help from Beirut in
resolving the Syria crisis.
Since the uprising against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad began a
year ago, Lebanon has lived in fear that the worsening violence will
spill across the border. In recent days, that fear has come close to
being realized with reports that Syrian troops fired into Lebanon
during clashes with rebels. The reports were mixed, with some stating
that Syria staged an incursion across the frontier to destroy a house
that allegedly harbored members of the opposition Free Syrian Army
(FSA), while others claimed that a few machine gun rounds strayed
across the border during fighting on the Syrian side. The Lebanese
government, which is backed by Damascus, denied that any incursions
occurred, but opposition supporters accused Syrian troops of burning
homes belonging to Lebanese who sympathize with the rebels next door.
The rival views neatly reflect a deep political division in Lebanon.
The poles are represented by the Future Movement, which is headed by
Saad Hariri and openly champions the Syrian revolutionaries and the
Iranian-backed Shiite militia, Hizballah, which continues to support
its ally in Damascus. Prime Minister Najib Mikati has adopted a
policy of noninterference on Syria, placing it at odds with the
consensus view of the twenty-two-member Arab League. Lebanon was one
of only two countries to voice reservations over the league´s
February decision to formally recognize the Syrian opposition and ask
the UN Security Council to deploy a peacekeeping force.
Signs of Spillover
Beirut´s evident discomfort in facing the crisis is hardly surprising
given Lebanon´s long history of living in Syria´s shadow, not to
mention the rift between pro- and anti-Assad camps. With its
fractious politics and complex sectarian demographics, Lebanon is the
neighbor most susceptible to destabilizing influences emanating from
the confrontation in Syria. On February 10, for example, clashes
broke out between Sunni and Alawite gunmen in the northern city of
Tripoli, leaving three people dead and another twenty wounded.
Indeed, Lebanon´s second-largest city is probably the most volatile
sectarian flashpoint in the country, and clashes routinely flare
there during times of political tension.
The increasingly sectarian nature of the Syrian struggle -- which
pits a mainly Sunni opposition against an entrenched, mainly Alawite
elite -- poses dangers for Lebanon, where Sunni-Shiite sentiment is
already raw and risks becoming further enflamed. Odds are high that
Tripoli and other flashpoints where Sunnis and Shiites live in close
proximity will see trouble in the weeks and months ahead.
Other ominous portents include renewed tensions between the
Palestinian Fatah movement and Salafi jihadist groups in the
perennially unstable Ain al-Hilwa Palestinian refugee camp near
Sidon, arising from the exposure of a militant cell that planned to
bomb Lebanese army targets. Further south, sporadic bomb attacks
against the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) have resumed after a
hiatus of more than three years. Since May of last year, three
roadside bombs have been detonated in separate attacks against
vehicles carrying French and Italian troops, wounding sixteen
peacekeepers. And in November-December, unidentified militants
launched Katyusha rockets into Israel, the first such fire from
Lebanon in more than two years. No hard evidence has emerged linking
these incidents unequivocally to the Assad regime, but few Lebanese
are surprised at the spate of security breaches just as Syria passes
through its gravest crisis in four decades.
Battle Lines in the North and East
More direct examples of spillover can be found along Lebanon´s
northern and eastern borders. Syrian troops have planted landmines
along much of the northern frontier and staged several brief
incursions into Lebanese territory, notably near the town of Arsal in
the eastern Beqa Valley and in the Wadi Khaled district in the north.
Both areas are populated mainly by Sunnis who support the uprising
against Assad and have harbored Syrian refugees and FSA members.
Given Beirut´s sympathies with Damascus, the FSA cannot use Lebanon
as a logistical and operational base for cross-border military
actions inside Syria. Moreover, Wadi Khaled and Arsal are
geographically small areas and therefore relatively controllable by
the state. As it is, the FSA presence in Lebanon appears to be
minimal and ad hoc -- a mix of fighters recovering from wounds or
temporarily sheltering from Syrian army offensives on the other side
of the border.
Implications for Hizballah and Iran
Lebanon´s security situation in the months ahead will depend greatly
on unfolding developments in Syria, largely because Hizballah and
Iran face the potential breakup of their "axis of resistance" -- the
pan-regional alliance of countries and actors opposed to Israel and
Western interests in the Middle East. Hamas, the alliance´s leading
Sunni component, already appears to have abandoned its erstwhile
hosts in Damascus.
For Hizballah (and Iran), the least favorable outcome would likely be
a smooth transition from the Assad regime to a moderate, Western-
friendly successor that better reflects Syria´s Sunni majority and
realigns itself away from Iran and toward Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Such a development could turn Iraq into the new regional battlefield,
with Iran and its Iraqi allies facing off against Sunni Arab states
led by Saudi Arabia. That scenario would leave Hizballah far from the
front lines, geostrategically isolated on the shores of the
If a Sunni-dominated government does emerge in Damascus, it could
embolden Lebanon´s Future Movement and the opposition March 14
coalition in general to take a firmer stance on Hizballah,
particularly regarding the divisive issue of the Shiite group´s
weapons. Such assertiveness would not be without risks, however.
Hizballah´s priority will remain the defense of its formidable
arsenal and military infrastructure, and it can be expected to act
swiftly and preemptively if it feels threatened or cornered by a
newly emboldened March 14.
Alternatively, the arrival of a moderate Sunni government in Damascus
could strengthen the ruling, pro-Syria March 8 coalition in Lebanon.
Should the Assad regime fall, Hizballah may fill the vacuum and
become a leading source of patronage to politicians and groups that
traditionally looked to Damascus for support. Although Hizballah´s
key coalition partner -- Michel Aoun, leader of the Free Patriotic
Movement -- would still depend on support from his Christian
constituency, his anti-Sunni inclinations could compel him to deepen
his alliance with Hizballah. This would in turn consolidate March 8
into a Christian-Shiite front, helping the coalition face off against
a Turkish- and Saudi-backed Sunni renaissance in Syria and a more
confident Future Movement in Lebanon.
Still, given the emerging insurgency and fears of civil war in Syria,
a smooth transition to stable, moderate rule is perhaps the least
likely scenario at the moment. Instead, the country appears to be
sliding into protracted conflict, with neither the regime nor the
opposition able to decisively overcome the other. International
diplomacy has been hesitant to address the crisis. Russia and China´s
continued backing of Assad has prevented strong censure by the
Security Council, leaving the West and its Arab allies to pin their
hopes on successful mediation by former UN secretary-general Kofi
Annan. Different intervention options are being considered, such as
arming the FSA or establishing humanitarian corridors, but none of
them is particularly palatable to nervous Western governments fearful
of becoming embroiled in another Middle Eastern conflict.
If the West and its regional allies decide to intervene in Syria,
Beirut´s ability to skirt the fallout will become even more
difficult, especially if Hizballah feels compelled to provide direct
support to its beleaguered ally in Damascus and preserve the "axis of
resistance." Given Lebanon´s vulnerability to developments next door,
the government will continue to distance itself as much as possible
from the crisis. Accordingly, the West should not expect too much
help from Beirut in resolving Syria´s problems. Lebanon´s deep
political divisions and traditional subservience to Damascus leave it
with no leverage over Syria, instead making it particularly prone to
feeling the backlash.
Nicholas Blanford is the Beirut correspondent of The Times (London)
and The Christian Science Monitor and a consultant with IHS/Jane´s.
He has lived in Lebanon since 1994. (The Washington Institute for
Near East Policy © 2012 All rights reserved 03/30/12)
Return to Top
MATERIAL REPRODUCED FOR EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY