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Lebanon vulnerable to Syria spillover, analysts say
August 29, 2013, 6:49 am

The attacks on Hezbollah assets, followed by car bombings at Sunni mosques a week later, have brought Lebanon closer to sectarian strife [AP]

The attacks on Hezbollah assets, followed by car bombings at Sunni mosques a week later, have brought Lebanon closer to sectarian strife [AP]

Anyone who wants to deliver a message in the Middle East sends it first to Beirut via car bombings, political assassinations, rocket attacks or just plain deadly gun battles.

Every foreign army that docked at Lebanese ports in the past 100 years has gone: the Turks, the British, the French, the Palestinians, the Americans, the Israelis and the Syrians.

But now, with the civil war in Syria appearing to expand beyond its borders, the new and dearly bought independence of the most pluralistic society in the region is being tested once more.

While the US navy prepares to strike Syrian targets in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack that killed scores of civilians, in neighbouring Lebanon it is Arab-on-Arab conflict that is threatening to transform the country into yet another battlefield.

As Lebanon is used as a proxy board for conflicts – Shia versus Sunnis; Iran versus Saudi Arabia; militant Islam versus moderate Islam; and the Syrian regime versus its own people – it’s no surprise that many here feel like 15 years of civil war and 150,000 fatalities were merely a dress rehearsal for further chaos.

In the past two weeks alone, Lebanese society endured three massive explosions – targeting an area controlled by Hezbollah, and later two Sunni mosques – which killed more than 68 people.

Foreign wars fought in Lebanon

The two-year-old carnage in Syria is intensifying friction between Sunnis and Shias in Lebanon and across the region. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is fighting a largely Sunni-led rebellion. Both Hezbollah and radical Sunni groups in Lebanon have sent fighters over the border to support opposing sides in Syria.

“If we go back and look at what happened in 1975, we fell in the same trap. While Lebanese were busy with their lives, there was a big conspiracy being prepared for Lebanon and that’s when the Palestinians challenged the Lebanese state and tipped the balance of power,” says Yasser Akkaoui, publisher of Executive Magazine, a regional finance and trade publication.

“The same thing happened in 1982 and again [in] 1984 and 1985. There’s this vicious cycle where Lebanese keep falling into the hands of foreign powers represented by local partners,” Akkaoui told The BRICS Post.

The depth of foreign influence – bordering on intervention – in the country’s social, economic and political institutions has led many Lebanese to lose faith in their government’s independence to function as a sovereign state.

This is exacerbated by the government’s lack of transparency and inability to establish a unified security and political foundation that can deter foreign intrusion. The continuous stream of foreign fighters into Lebanese territory without any condemnation from the government has gradually diminished its power and credibility.

Argues Akkaoui: “Look at our parliament and who represents us in parliament; they are definitely not representative of the Lebanese population.”

Unable to provide a broad national vision, the Beirut government’s policy of disassociation to shield the country from the effects of the Syrian war simply does not work as shells from over the border continue to hit Lebanese territory.

For now, most Lebanese leaders have adopted a wait-and-see attitude given the deep uncertainty about the outcome of the Syrian debacle.

Lebanese government paralysis

The Lebanese government is effectively paralyzed; consensus on a new government formation stalled. Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati resigned after his divided cabinet failed to approve a commission to oversee parliamentary elections planned for June 2014.

Lebanon’s Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam has been unsuccessfully trying to form a government for more than three months, and has been unable to bring various factions together.

The security and political impasses already suggest that Lebanon is too vulnerable politically – and militarily – to safely skirt the repercussions of events engulfing the region.

And with the recent bombings in Tripoli and Dahiyeh (southern Beirut), the war is no longer confined to Syria’s borders, but rather can erupt wherever both parties to the conflict have a presence.

For its part, the national army is overshadowed by Hezbollah’s power and weapons cache.

In need of a ‘safety net’

The UN says there are hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in Lebanon [Getty Images]

The UN says there are hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in Lebanon [Getty Images]

One independent politician believes the impact of a spillover from Syria will be ‘huge’.

“It will be more and more difficult to deal with the outcome unless we have a safety net to avoid any negative impact,” says former Lebanese Interior Minister Ziad Baroud.

He believes that the safety net should be established by strictly Lebanese institutions; such an action would serve as a proactive way of fomenting solidarity.

“Lebanese political groups, whatever they think, should be united in this particular goal on protecting Lebanon,” Baroud adds.

But national unity, long aspired to, may be a pipe dream.

While Hezbollah remains overwhelmingly dominant politically and militarily, moderate Sunnis and Christians are wary to speak out.

Hezbollah says it has no interest in a domestic sectarian escalation and the mainstream moderate Sunni leadership, represented by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Future Movement, has rejected violence as a solution to political obstacles.

In reality, Sunni blocs are unorganized militarily and stand little chance in a head-on confrontation with Hezbollah.

The Al-Qaeda factor

Mohamad Chatah, a member of Lebanon’s Sunni Future party and a senior advisor to former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, says the failure to alter the status quo in Lebanese politics is creating a lot of resentment and frustration amongst Sunnis.

“You hear voices that are disenchanted with the Hariri party and the March 14 [movement]  saying ‘you are not able to deliver on your promises and we are still living under Hezbollah’s will’,” Chatah told The BRICS Post.

And because of the resentment, he adds, part of the Lebanese Sunni community is adopting an increasingly hardline and sectarian stance.

The burgeoning of new grassroots Sunni militant leaders could yet inspire some Lebanese Sunnis to take action against Hezbollah, even if the majority of the community remains disinclined to directly tackle the powerful Shia group.

Radical groups sympathetic to Al-Qaeda have in fact been operating in Lebanon and threatening its security for years.

The difficulty of enforcing the state’s sovereignty throughout Lebanese territory is a contributing factor to the deteriorating security situation.

Without state control, these groups effectively reign free in the country; the very serious issue of Al-Qaeda’s remains unaddressed.

The Al-Qaeda threat is linked to events in the region especially in Syria, says Middle East scholar Nadim Shehadi.

“To a certain extent, the phenomenon is linked to government sponsorship, manipulation and patronage by security services,” Shehadi says.

The ‘bigger’ picture

Many in Lebanon believe the conflict transcends the question of Lebanese and Syrian security combined.

Lebanese Foreign minister Adnan Mansour recently warned that military action against Syria would result in negative consequences for the entire Middle East, not just Lebanon.

The regional equation is troubling: Lebanon is a country overrun by Syrian, Palestinian and Iraqi refugees, and is facing a growing sectarian rift in the region.

With more bombings feared in Lebanon, a deepening discord between Sunnis and Shias, and a looming strike on Syria by the US, Lebanon is dangling by a thread.

The terrifying prospect Lebanese are sometimes too intimidated to voice is that if the Levantine state can’t maintain a semblance of unity to counter outside pressures, then it is likely to be torn apart by domestic and foreign forces.

By Adla Massoud in Beirut, Lebanon for The BRICS Post