Syrian Conflict: Lebanon at Risk

Flag of Lebanon

By Tess deBlanc-Knowles, Research Intern
Edited by Colonel Joel Rayburn, Military Research Fellow

Whether or not the Assad government survives the deepening current crisis, the explosion of violence and instability in Syria will have a serious impact on its neighbors and fundamentally alter regional dynamics.  As the world considers the potential regional fallout, international attention has tended to focus either on Iran or on the exacerbation of sectarian divisions in Iraq.  But civil war in Syria will also likely drag Lebanon into the fray and put devastating pressure on its fragile political framework.

In the face of Syrian unrest, the Lebanese government of Prime Minister Mikati has attempted to pursue a policy of determined neutrality in an effort to “disassociate” itself from the Syrian conflict.[1]  The government has attempted to insulate Lebanon from Syria’s instability by steering clear of both Arab League and international initiatives, declining to participate in sanctions against its neighbor or to play a role in the Arab League observer mission.  Most recently, the government declined the invitation to attend the “Friends of Syria” conference in Tunisia, citing “compliance with the country’s disassociation policy.”[2]

Beyond official statements, however, actors within Lebanon have begun jockeying to capitalize on Syria’s political disruption and the perceived waning of the Assad government’s power. Hezbollah’s March 8 coalition, for example, has clearly affirmed its support of the Assad government.  In recent speeches, Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrullah downplayed the scale of the Syrian unrest, blaming the media for false reports and exaggerated casualty counts.  Nasrullah additionally cautioned that a new regime in Syria would increase the influence of both the United States and Israel.[3]

By contrast, leaders of the opposition March 14 coalition have declared support for “the will of Syrian the people” and the establishment of democracy in Syria.[4]  Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri has called for “solidarity with the Syrian people” and for international recognition of the opposition Syrian National Council.[5]  In a recent interview, Fares Soueid, the Secretary General of March 14, affirmed the coalition’s support of the SNC and boldly asserted, “the Syrian regime will most certainly fall down.”[6]

This polarization over Syria has touched even those who ostensibly occupy the neutral center of Lebanon’s political spectrum.  Druze leader Walid Jumblatt has participated publicly in anti-Assad rallies and has predicted that “the Syrian people’s revolution will win,”[7]  and has gone so far as to call for arming the Syrian opposition.[8]   President Michel Suleiman, similarly, appeared to side with the Syrian opposition when he declared in late February that “we, as friends of the Syrian people, hope that democracy will be established in Syria because if it is well, then Lebanon will be well.”[9]

Meanwhile, Lebanon’s domestic politics have ground to a halt.  Public fracturing of cabinet politicians along pro and anti-Syrian lines continues to raise tensions within government, stymieing compromise and hampering basic functioning.  Disagreements between pro-Assad Christian leader Michel Aoun and the anti-Assad opposition led to a four week suspension of cabinet sessions by Prime Minister Mikati last month.  While Mikati declared the crisis resolved following the resignation of a cabinet member from Aoun’s political bloc, the stalemate illustrated the now-continuous tensions between the coalitions, which have flared again over budgetary issues.[10]

Beyond politics, the spillover of Syria’s turmoil has led to unrest in the Lebanese street.  Large anti-Assad rallies have been held in the cities of Saida and Wali Khalid, and the Russian embassy in Beirut was the scene of impassioned rival demonstrations following Russia’s veto of the UN Security Council Resolution proposing a gradual turnover of power by Assad.[11]  Most recently, tensions exploded in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli – always a sectarian flashpoint – where clashes between pro-Assad Alawites and anti-Assad Sunnis left 3 dead and 23 wounded.[12]  Pro and anti-Assad rallies escalated into violent clashes, including the launching of rocket-propelled grenades from both sides.[13]  Reports of armed militias roaming the streets, explosions of machine gun fire, and targeted attacks on Lebanese Army personnel have flooded the Lebanese press.  Weekly anti-Assad protests organized by the Salafi Hizb Ut-Tahrir have followed the violence in the city, with protestors calling for jihad against the Assad government.[14]

The government responded to these incidents by dispatching the army to reestablish security.  The Lebanese Armed Forces have additionally been deployed, since the first week in February, along the northern border with Syria.  This deployment came at the request of the Syrian regime in response to growing Free Syrian Army activity in the area and the vocal condemnation by the Syrian ambassador to Lebanon of the smuggling of weapons across the border into Syria from its “brotherly state.”[15]  Such a deployment, ostensibly to maintain “security,” undermines Mikati’s neutrality policy and brings Lebanon a step closer to outright involvement in the conflict.  While Mikati has emphasized the deployment as an effort to protect the country’s borders, Hezbollah has indicated the importance of the army’s border presence as an impediment to the actions of Syrian sympathizers and to intercept the flow of weapons to the Syrian opposition.   Large numbers of refugees fleeing the violence, estimated by the UNHCR to number over 6000,[16] further add to the complex situation in the north.

Publicly, Hezbollah’s leaders have proclaimed their neutrality, asserting their commitment to maintaining Lebanon’s distance from the Syrian troubles.  For example, Deputy Hezbollah Secretary General Naim Qassem declared that Hezbollah “will not allow Lebanon to be used as a platform to attack others or a conduit for settling political scores in order to execute Israeli and American projects.”[17]  By framing the statement in such a manner, Qassem attempted to position the organization with the disassociation stance of the government, albeit with a firm anti-western intervention message.  Meanwhile, in response to Prime Minister Mikati’s earlier suspension of the cabinet, Hezbollah leader Nasrallah publicly confirmed the organization’s support of the government, insisting that now “is not the appropriate time for overthrowing cabinets in Lebanon.”[18]  Nasrallah has voiced the opinion that Lebanon would be the first country affected by Syrian unrest, and has thus asserted Hezbollah’s commitment to the current Lebanese government and its attempts to provide stability and political security.

Reports from the ground, however, paint a different picture.  A number of sources have implicated Hezbollah in pro-Syrian activities in the border areas, including the tracking down of opposition leaders,[19] the training of snipers, and the involvement of Iranian intelligence officers.[20]  More recently. The Free Syrian Army condemned the alleged involvement of Hezbollah armed brigades, along with Iranian Revolutionary Guards, in supporting the Syrian regime.[21]

In its public rhetoric, Hezbollah has endeavored to transfer blame for Lebanese instability to the actions of March 14, while simultaneously shifting the focus to the threat of Israel and Hezbollah’s critical role as a bulwark against it.  Hezbollah has positioned itself as pro-Assad, but also pro-disassociation, launching rhetorical attacks at its March 14 rivals, accusing them of arming the Syrian opposition and of attempting to use the Syrian uprising as an avenue for political gain.[22]  Senior Hezbollah official, Nabil Qaouk, warned March 14 against such steps, asserting that “the resistance today is at its strongest and is prepared to bring down a great catastrophe upon Israel.”[23]  Following the anti-Assad speeches of March 14 leaders Saad Hariri and Amin Gemayal, Nasrallah asserted the opposition alliance was “plunging Lebanon into war.”[24]

In fairness, the fact that Hezbollah itself is guilty of what it accuses March 14 of doing does not mean that March 14 is entirely innocent.  There is ample evidence that some March 14 elements do, at a minimum, have the intent of helping to arm the Syrian opposition, as Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea recently implied in his call to all countries to act decisively to stop the murder of Syrian civilians.[25]  And a recent explosion at an arms warehouse in Tripoli may have involved a Future Movement cache intended for arming the Syrian opposition.[26]

Thus the stage is set for Syria’s violence to spill over into Lebanon.  Lebanese politics have become deeply polarized, rival Lebanese factions are likely providing material support to the opposing Syrian sides, and the tension is already causing armed clashes within Lebanese borders.  Of course, the collapse of the Assad government would bring with it the danger of a security vacuum in any case.  Such a dynamic would have the strong likelihood of pushing Syria over the precipice into full-blown civil war, an occurrence that would send shockwaves through the delicate sectarian and security stability of the region as a whole.  Civil war in Syria would almost certainly complete the unraveling of Lebanon’s shaky confessional political system and plunge it back into civil war, and thus,  as the crisis in Syria worsens, the issue of the Assad government’s survival will eventually imperil the survival of the Lebanese government as well.  For Lebanon, to not follow a policy of disassociation would indeed be, as Prime Minister Mikati has declared, “suicidal.”[27]  But the influx of Syrian refugees, the escalation of political struggles, the polarization of the political parties, and the eruption of popular violence seem to indicate that this is a policy that has already failed.

[1] “Mikati , in Paris, Says France Understands Lebanon’s Syria Sensitivities.”  Daily Star 10 Feb 2012

[2] “Lebanon to Miss ‘Friends of Syria Conference.”  Daily Star 21 Feb 2012

[3] Nasrallah, Hassan.   Sayyid Al-Shuhada Complex, Beirut, Lebanon.  7 Feb. 2012.

[4] “We are with the Syrian People as a whole and support the democratic option, and this is included in the proposal of the Syrian leadership”  An Nahar  30 Jan 2012.

[5]  “Lebanese Press Round-Up: February 15, 2012” NOW Lebanon 15 Feb 2012

[6]  Interview with Fares Soueid.  Al Arabiyya Television,  Dubai 16 Feb 2012

[7] “Jumblatt Joins Anti-Syrian Regime Protest in Beirut” NOW Lebanon 22 Feb 2012

[8] “Jumblatt Calls for ‘Arming Syrian Opposition’” NOW Lebanon 25 Feb 2012

[9] “Suleiman: Some Flaws Need to Be Addressed to Fortify Taef Accord”  Naharnet  24 Feb 2012.

[10] “Mikati, Suleiman Emerge Winners in Deal to End Cabinet Crisis”  Daily Star 24 Feb 2012

[11] “Rival Demonstrators Face Off at Russian Embassy”  Daily Star 6 Feb 2012

[12] “Syrian Violence Spills Over Into Lebanon.”  Al Jazeera  12 Feb. 2012

[13] “Syrian Violence Spills Over Into Lebanon.”  Al Jazeera  12 Feb. 2012.

[14] “The Syrian Uprising in the Eyes of  Lebanese Islamists”  Al Akhbar  29 Feb 2012 .

[15] “Mikati, Syria’s Envoy Discuss Arm’s Smuggling.”  Daily Star 18 Jan 2012.

[16] Noor Malas and Charles Levinson, “Syrian Conflict Spills to Neighbors.”  Wall Street Journal 18 Feb 2012.

[17] “Lebanon Won’t Be Used To Hit Arab States: Hezbollah.”  Daliy Star  13 Feb. 2012.

[18]  “Nasrallah: Time Not ‘Appropriate for Overthrowing Cabinets.’”  NOW Lebanon  7 Feb. 2012.

[19] Mortada, Radwan. “Wadi Khalid: The Free Syrian Army Base in Lebanon”  Al Akhbar  8 Feb 2012.

[20] Amar Al-Wawi.  Interview by Hedi Aouidj.  Owni.  20 Feb 2012.  Web.

[21] “Snc Military Commander: Iranian, Hezbollah Brigades Fighting With Assad Forces”  NOW Lebanon 1 March 2012

[22] “Hezbollah Warns March 14 not to wager on Political Change.”  Daily Star 21 Feb 2012

[23] “Hezbollah Warns March 14 not to wager on Political Change.”  Daily Star 21 Feb 2012

[24] “Future Block Says Nasrallah’s Speech Was ‘Negative.’”  NOW Lebanon 21 Feb 2012.

[25] “Geagea: A Democratic Syria Ends ‘Exportation of Terrorism”  NOW Lebanon 14 Feb 2012.

[26] “Tripoli Clashes and the Neo-Salafis”  Al Akhbar  20 Feb 2012.

[27] Rizk, Sibylle.  “Lebanon is Certainly Not an Organized Platform for Arms Exports to Syria.”  Le Figaro 10 Feb 2012


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