U.W. Mr. Zambelis, how are the effects of the revolt in Syria being felt in Lebanon?
I spent most of this past November and December in Lebanon and I am continuing to follow developments in the region closely. I would say it is quite obvious that the evolving events in Syria are impacting Lebanon on a number of different levels – socially, politically, economically, and in terms of security. Notwithstanding their geographic proximity, it is important to emphasize how intertwined Lebanon and Syria are in so many aspects. Many Lebanese and Syrians, regardless of their sectarian and ethnic identities, have family ties that transcend the borders between both countries. On any given day, hundreds of thousands of Syrians are in Lebanon as guest workers. Lebanese and Syrians regularly cross the border for recreation or to shop. Lebanese are also encountering a greater number of Syrians who have fled the violence and unrest back home or others who are in the country for political reasons.
Lebanon’s vital tourist sector has been decimated over fears that the violence and instability seen in Syria will eventually play out on its soil. The cost of food and other basic goods has also skyrocketed across Lebanon, as products of Syrian origin, including items such as fruits and vegetables and basic household products typically found on Lebanese store shelves, are not finding their way into the country due to the instability. This is prompting Lebanese merchants to compensate by importing more expensive alternatives, a reality that is hurting the poorest communities as higher retail costs are passed on to consumers.
Political tensions are rising across the country in what is already a highly-charged political landscape. Depending on their political or sectarian affiliations, many Lebanese view the revolt in Syria through the prism of domestic politics. Lebanese who identify with the March 14 alliance, a coalition that is backed by the United States and Saudi Arabia and that includes former prime minister Sa’ad Hariri’s Future Movement, for instance, tend to be strongly anti-Syrian and have thrown their support behind the opposition to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Syria’s alliance with Hezbollah in Lebanon, a bitter rival of the March 14 alliance, is the reason behind the March 14 alliance’s position vis-à-vis the revolt in Syria; by supporting the Syrian opposition, March 14 and other anti-Hezbollah political parties and movements stand to gain in Lebanon. By the same token, Lebanese affiliated with the March 8 alliance, a bloc that includes Hezbollah and other pro-Syria political parties and movements, are firmly behind al-Assad. Since the start of the uprising, these dynamics have played themselves out in the form of public protests across Lebanon and other displays of activism pitting rival groups, heightening tension in the process. There have also been a few incidents of violence related to the situation in Syria.
U.W. Can a domino effect provoke serious unrest in Lebanon?
Yes, absolutely. Lebanon is highly susceptible to a potential spillover of the unrest seen in Syria. In an extreme set of circumstances, Lebanese fear that the chaos in Syria can potentially spark another civil war in Lebanon. There have already been a series of violent incidents along the Lebanese-Syrian border involving Syrian security forces and members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the amorphous insurgent group that is leading the violent rebellion against Damascus. FSA factions are operating in parts of northern Lebanon with the support of anti-Syrian political parties and movements. Members of the Syrian opposition are also enjoying support among sympathizers in Lebanon. Naturally, pro-Syrian factions in Lebanon do not look kindly on attempts by their rivals to undermine their ally in Damascus. Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli has also witnessed violent clashes over the situation in Syria. Armed clashes between militias representing Tripoli’s majority Sunni and pro-March 14 alliance (and, by extension, anti-Syria) community and its rival Alawite minority population, which is strongly pro-Syria and pro-Hezbollah, are reminiscent of the sectarian fighting witnessed during the 1975-1990 Civil War in Lebanon. There are also reports of escalating tensions in Palestinian refugee camps across Lebanon stemming from events in Syria.
The security situation in Lebanon could spiral out of control at a pace all its own. At the same time, I would argue that the Baathist regime in Damascus can incite tensions in Lebanon with relative ease in order to threaten further instability across the Levant. This is an important card that the Baathist regime can and likely will play if it feels that its survival is at stake. It is also worth noting that the United States, Turkey, Lebanon, and other key players in the Syria crisis – even Israel – have expressed very strong reservations about what the further destabilization of the Baathist regime in Damascus will entail for regional stability. For its part, Syria can destabilize Lebanon through its network of local allies or by its own direction actions, such as shelling suspected FSA positions inside Lebanon.
There is also the option of launching attacks against Syria’s Golan Heights, a region that remains under Israeli occupation, although I think this is less likely. Ironically, for Israel, the Baathist regime’s lack of action on the Golan issue has made it a reliable and predictable player, thus allowing Israel to devote its military resources elsewhere. The potential fall of the Baathist regime, in Israel’s perspective, may prove disastrous in the long-run as a new government may eventually mobilize armed resistance to take the region back much like Hezbollah was able to oust Israeli forces from southern Lebanon after years of armed resistance. Overall, Syria has many cards to play in Lebanon and beyond.
U.W. Can we expect to see a similar kind of revolt in Lebanon?
I think if events in Syria continue on their current course, the potential for instability and even violence in Lebanon will rise exponentially. At the same time, I also think the Lebanese are extremely wary of being engulfed in another conflict. Memories of the 1975-1990 Civil War continue to colour many aspects of society and politics in Lebanon, not to mention the fact that the landscape and infrastructure still bear the scars of decades of conflict. The Lebanese also suffered tremendously during the Israeli occupation and, more recently, during Israel’s attack in 2006. Tensions stemming from the investigation over the 2005 assassination of prime minister Rafik Hariri raised concerns about another outbreak of violence and continue to shape events today. But even as most ordinary Lebanese are wary of taking up arms against their kin, the nature of Lebanon’s social and political landscape is such that it can be easily destabilized. Many Lebanese also, justifiably, live in fear of being targeted again by Israel. Another war between Israel and Hezbollah will be especially brutal. Israel appears determined to restore its deterrence in the face of what was widely seen as a victory by Hezbollah in 2006. This is an important aspect to consider, as a Lebanon that is plunged in civil violence will be perceived, and rightfully so, as a far easier target by Israel.
U.W. What are the barriers to Lebanon fragmenting?
As I mentioned above, I think it is Lebanon’s recent history of conflict that may help save it amid the chaos in Syria. Paradoxically, it is precisely due to Lebanon’s recent history of conflict coupled with the fractured nature of its society and politics that leave it vulnerable to unrest and instability stemming from what is happening in Syria.
U.W. How are Christians in Lebanon interpreting the instability in Syria? And how representatives of other religions see this situation?
The increasingly sectarian character of the armed revolt in Syria is certainly raising concerns among Lebanese of all sects. By all accounts, the FSA is composed almost exclusively of Sunni Arabs, who make up the large majority of the Syrian population. There is strong evidence to indicate that radical Islamists and ultraconservative Salafists are filling the ranks of the group. Al-Assad is an Alawite and much of the regime hierarchy is made up of Alawites. Alawites are considered heretics by many orthodox Muslims and are frequent targets of Islamic extremists. The sectarian-tinged opposition to al-Assad exists despite the Baathist regime’s strong secular, socialist, and pan-Arab nationalist credentials. In Syria, the concerns of the sizeable Christian minority community, as well as those of members of other minority sects, such as the Shia and Druze, not to mention the large secular Sunni communities in places such as Damascus and Aleppo, regarding the creeping sectarianism in the country are justifiable. Many rightfully point to the recent experiences of Iraq and Lebanon with sectarian conflict as something they want to avoid at all costs. As Lebanon has traditionally served as a playing field for Syrian politics, it will certainly serve as the first battleground if and when the revolt degenerates into an all-out sectarian-driven civil war.
It is also important to note the geopolitical dynamics at play here. The battle in Syria today serves as the frontline fight between Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other U.S. allies (mostly Sunni-dominated dictatorships) against the so-called “axis of resistance” composed of Syria, Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas. In fact, I think the revolt in Syria is as much about the larger conflict between these power blocs as it is about the evolution of opposition to status quo politics in the region which we have seen since the wave of uprisings began in 2011. Saudi Arabia and its allies like to foment sectarianism pitting Sunni versus Shia. In this regard, the Shia Islamist regime of Iran and its “Alawite” ally in Damascus and fellow Shia coreligionists in Hezb0llah represent a dire threat to its position in the region. Undermining the Baathist regime in Damascus, therefore, bolsters Saudi Arabia and its allies and, at the same time, weakens its rivals Iran and Hezbollah, etc.
But while the sectarian element is important, it is not all-important. There are Sunnis, Christians, Shia, Druze, Kurds, and members of other groups in Lebanon and Syria that support the Baathist regime just as there are Sunnis, Christians, Shia, Druze, Kurds, and others who stand with the opposition. It is also worth adding that the Syrian opposition is widely perceived as a tool of Saudi Arabia and Qatar in Lebanon and the wider region. Many have compared the assembly of opposition parties and movements, namely, the Syrian National Council (SNC), the FSA, and their numerous offshoots to the numerous Iraqi exile and opposition groups that operated in a similar fashion in the run up to the war in Iraq. In this context, the rise of Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress (INC) comes to mind. That is not to say that opposition to the Baathist regime does not run deep in Syria. It does. But many are asking, at what cost?
U.W. Is Lebanon staying out of the conflict?
For the time being, yes, I believe that Lebanon will stay out of the conflict. However, I believe that the situation in Lebanon will continue to simmer over the events in Syria. I expect to see future clashes analogous to the militia violence in Tripoli and more border incidents involving the Syrian security forces and suspected FSA rebel positions near the Syrian-Lebanese border. Popular expressions for and against the Baathist regime in Damascus will also persist.
But I also believe that if the Baathist regime in Damascus becomes genuinely fearful of losing power, it will be forced to play its Lebanon card. I am not saying that it will get to that point. The Baathist regime continues to enjoy plenty of support in the face of what seems to be an emboldened opposition. The international community is fractured; Damascus continues to count on support from Russia and China, as well as Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon even amid tougher rhetoric out of Washington and Europe. If this support begins to fade away, I think we will see Syria resort to escalating tensions in the Levant, and Lebanon is a perfect place to do so.
U.W. Will Lebanon become a sanctuary for Syrian rebel groups?
It already has to some extent. There is evidence that FSA factions are operating in northern Lebanon, in places such as Akkar, which is a destination for many Syrian refugees, as well as Wadi Khaled. The border bisecting Lebanon and Syria is porous, so it is relatively easy for FSA fighters to use Lebanon as a refuge, especially in areas where local Lebanese may sympathize with their cause. As Lebanon is awash with small arms, the FSA is bolstering its capabilities by purchasing arms on the black market in Lebanese border towns. Wounded FSA fighters are also seeking medical attention in Lebanon. At the same time, it is important to stress that the number of FSA fighters operating in Lebanon is probably quite small. In other words, Lebanon’s role in facilitating the FSA’s operations is not enough at this point to translate into major strategic gains by the group. Let us not forget that the Syrian intelligence services have retained a formidable network in Lebanon even after the Syrian military withdrew from the country in 2005. Syria also boasts many loyal allies in Lebanon. On a related note, opposition political activists are also operating across Lebanon. The Local Coordination Committees (LCCs) and other Syrian opposition groups that are organizing against the Baathist regime are operating in plain sight in Beirut and across Lebanon.
U.W. Is a formal alliance possible between Lebanese factions opposed to the regime in Damascus and the Syrian rebels?
This is already happening, at least in the political sphere. Lebanon’s ultraconservative Salafist community has come out in full-force in support of the rebellion against Damascus. Members of the predominantly Maronite Christian Lebanese Forces led by Samir Geagea have also come out in support of the rebellion. These communities represent important constituencies in the March 14 alliance. And then there are also the reports of the various radical Sunni Islamist currents in Lebanon that identify with al-Qaeda’s brand of radicalism and look to Saudi Arabia for support; they too are angling to see the fall of the Baathist regime. Likewise, Hezbollah and its supporters, including the mostly Christian Free Patriotic Movement led by Michel Aoun and the mostly Shia Amal Movement led by Nabih Berri – both critical components of the March 8 alliance – remain steadfast in their support for the Baathist regime. All of these political parties and movements boast formidable militias, both formal and informal, making for a combustible mix.
Chris Zambelis is an analyst and researcher specializing in Middle East affairs with Helios Global, Inc., a risk management group based in the Washington, DC area. The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of Helios Global Inc.