Assad’s fall in Syria could spell radical change, or something still worse, for next-door Lebanon (TIMES OF ISRAEL) By MITCH GINSBURG 07/26/12)
TIMES OF ISRAEL
TIMES OF ISRAEL Articles-Index-Top
Hezbollah may well fill the vacuum, which would be bad enough. But
there’s a worse scenario for France’s century-old creation — oblivion
Lebanon has always lived in the shadow of its neighbor to the
northeast. Now, as the Assad family’s four-decade-old grip on power
is painfully pried open, Lebanon, that flawed French creation, is
sure to be drastically impacted by the results of uprising in Syria.
But the shape and effects of that impact are uncertain. If Israel is
able to remain on the sidelines, as it has throughout the turmoil of
the Arab Spring, then the fall of the Alawite regime in Syria will
affect the sectarian state of Lebanon in one of two ways.
In one scenario, the demise of Assad’s Syria, which one expert
called “the Iranians’ Trojan horse in the Levant” and another “the
womb in which Hezbollah was born,” may lead to a rise in power for
the Sunni Muslims, after years of increased Hezbollah-led Shiite
control of Lebanon. Such a struggle, aided by the Sunni power
brokers, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and the influx of al-Qaeda-like
elements in Syria, would destabilize the country, push it toward
another civil war, but weaken Israel’s fiercest enemy in the Levant
and hinder Iran in its bid for regional hegemony.
Others argue to the contrary: Assad’s departure will create a power
vacuum, a void, and it will be filled, promptly and without struggle,
by Hezbollah, the strongest group in Lebanon. Assad’s loss and
Hezbollah’s victory will be a major achievement for Iran, which has
been vying for influence in Lebanon since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Israel, however, may not be able to watch passively as events unfold.
Thus far the Israeli leadership has shined in its role as silent
spectator to the historic events roiling the Arab world, but a
transfer of chemical weapons to Hezbollah or an al-Qaeda-type group,
which could entrench itself in the perhaps soon-to-be lawless lands
along the Golan Heights, would demand Israeli action. Foreign
Minister Avigdor Liberman said Tuesday that the transfer of chemical
weapons to Hezbollah would be a casus belli. An Israeli strike, the
IDF Chief of the General Staff Benny Gantz warned hours later, could
lead to war. And war, at this stage, could push Lebanon toward
A senior military source said recently that Israel, in its next
engagement with Hezbollah, will deal Lebanon a blow so severe
it “will need decades to get over it.” He intimated that he wasn’t
sure Lebanon would recuperate at all.
Lebanon is the least viable of the post-Ottoman mandatory creations.
The French took control of the territory in 1918 and, after crushing
the Hashemite leader Faisal’s bid for Arab independence in Greater
Syria, they carved out the only Christian majority state in the
Middle East and named it the Republic of Lebanon.
Since independence, political powers have been assigned to certain
religious groups. The president, for instance, has always been a
Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, the speaker of
parliament a Shiite Muslim and the deputy prime minister a Greek
That system of power-sharing – based on the last official census in
Lebanon, taken in 1932 – collapsed horribly during the 1975-1990
civil war, in which 150,000 Lebanese were killed. Since then the Arab
state with the highest literacy rate and lowest birth rate, the
cultural center of the Arab world, has come under increased Hezbollah
Today Christians are a small minority; Shia Islam is the largest sect
in the country by a wide margin, representing perhaps as much as half
the population; Hezbollah holds 11 out of 30 state cabinet positions,
providing it with an effective veto; and four of its officers,
including Mustafa Badr al-Din, the head of the military wing, are
wanted in The Hague for the 2005 murder of Lebanese Prime Minister
Rafik Hariri. The organization’s armed forces, united under the twin
flags of battling Israel and spreading the gospel of the Iranian
revolution, are in many ways more powerful than the state military.
On May 8, 2008, Hezbollah offered Lebanon a glimpse of its domestic
strength. Frustrated by the state government decision to restrict its
private fixed-line communications network, which was reportedly
linked to Iran and Syria, and outraged by the decision to fire
Hezbollah loyalist Brig. Gen. Wafiq Choucair from the post of airport
security chief, a position that allowed him to oversee the smooth
transfer of arms from those two countries, Hezbollah leader Hassan
Nasrallah announced the organization would “cut off the hand” of any
entity that tried to harm the movement. This was a proclamation that
flew in the face of decades of rhetoric regarding Hezbollah’s Lebanon-
Nasrallah’s militiamen shut down the airport and the naval ports,
torched rival news outlets and occupied parts of Sunni west Beirut
and Tripoli. The Lebanese Army did not intervene; dozens of people
were killed and hundreds injured.
On May 21, 2008, fearing civil war, all parties met in Doha and
signed an agreement that increased Shiite influence in government and
enabled Hezbollah to maintain control of its weapons, the largest
arsenal of any non-state actor.
The current balance of power, though, could shift if the Alawites are
toppled in Syria. “Powerful parties in Lebanon are just itching for
Hezbollah to weaken as a result of the Assad regime’s fall in Syria,”
according to Brig. Gen. (ret.) Shimon Shapira, a senior fellow at the
Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the author of “Hizbullah:
between Iran and Lebanon.”
One indication of that has been the provocative road block
established by the radical Sunni cleric Sheikh Hamad Assir. Since
June he has barred Hezbollah traffic from Beirut to the south of
Lebanon. Hezbollah forces could clear him out of the way in a few
moments but the fact that they have not done so, according to an
interview with Assir in the Financial Times, proves the
organization’s current vulnerability. “They need to understand that
they can’t control all of Lebanon,” he told the FT in June.
Shapira notes additional signs of Hezbollah’s vulnerability: for the
first time in years secular groups in southern Lebanon have defied
the Shiite organization’s ban on the sale of alcohol, pushing
Hezbollah strongmen out of stores in Nabatiyeh; talk has resurfaced
about appointing a Maronite Christian officer to oversee airport
security; and many high-ranking officials were implicated in the
CIA’s 2011 Hezbollah spy ring.
After Bashar Assad falls, Shapira said, “the probability of the civil
war being reignited is not small.”
He predicted that Sunni Jihadist fighters would descend on Beirut,
link arms with local Sunnis, and battle Hezbollah. The Christians and
the Druze, perhaps representing a quarter of the population in total,
would sit on the fence.
He noted that the majority of Hezbollah’s arms, some 70,000 rockets,
mortars and missiles, among other weapons, were amassed with the
express goal of battling Israel and would do the organization little
good on the streets of Beirut. “The battles will be waged with small
arms fire and in that both sides are equal,” he said.
Bassem Eid, a Palestinian analyst of Middle East affairs on Voice of
Israel and a human rights activist, agreed with Shapira that Assad’s
demise would ripple into Lebanon and destabilize the county. He
likened Lebanon to Brussels and said he was sure the British and the
French were “sorry they ever created it.”
But he was vehemently opposed to the idea that a Sunni victory in
Syria would translate into tangible Sunni gains in Lebanon.
After Assad falls, “the one organization that will rule Lebanon will
be Hezbollah. I have no shadow of a doubt,” he said.
Eid asserted that while in the Israeli narrative Bashar Assad’s
regime has been seen as the bridge through which Iranian influence
and arms cross into the Arab world, it also has served as a
counterweight to Hezbollah’s strength in Lebanon. “They kept the
balance intact,” he said of Assad’s regime, “and as soon as they
leave, Hezbollah will step in and control Lebanon.”
And since Hezbollah “spends 24 hours of each day thinking how to draw
Israel into a conflict,” he said, its rise would inevitably lead to a
persecuted Christian minority, and another war with Israel. (© 2012
THE TIMES OF ISRAEL 07/26/12)
Return to Top
MATERIAL REPRODUCED FOR EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY