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May 31, 2012 Edition 19

When Syria sneezes
Murhaf Jouejati

According to an old Levantine dictum, when Syria sneezes Lebanon gets the flu. Part of the reason is that Lebanon, Syria's smaller neighbor, is populated by extensions of Syria's rival political and sectarian groups.

Articles in this edition
The Lebanon-Syria lines have been erased - Franklin Lamb
When Syria sneezes - Murhaf Jouejati
Fallout from the Syrian crisis - Nizar Abdel-Kader
Imperial claims on fragile space - Seda Altug
With the crisis in Syria now at its apex following 15 months of a popular uprising against the Assad regime, Syria is not only sneezing, it may be suffering from pneumonia. Despite Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati's "dissociation policy"--an attempt to prevent the Syrian affliction from infecting his county--Lebanon is increasingly getting sucked into the intra-Syrian conflict.

In addition to the assassination of anti-Assad Lebanese politicians and journalists and the kidnapping of a score of Lebanon-based Assad opponents, Syrian security forces have regularly staged incursions into Lebanese territory in hot pursuit of fleeing Syrian rebels while the far smaller Lebanese army looked the other way. Syrian security forces have shelled Lebanese border villages suspected of smuggling weapons and/or providing shelter to anti-Assad rebels, killing scores of Lebanese bystanders in the process. This is to say nothing of the economic and political impact on Lebanon of the tens of thousands of ordinary Syrians who have flocked to that country for refuge.

As the violence in Syria escalates and the collapse of his regime approaches, President Bashar Assad, in desperation, will do all he can to destabilize Lebanon--never mind the catastrophic regional repercussions this entails. Assad's strategy is to threaten civil war in Lebanon so as to deter the international community from dislodging his regime by force, as it did Muammar Gaddafi's regime in Libya.

Although no firm evidence links recent events in Lebanon with Syrian skullduggery, the arrest by Syria-friendly Lebanese intelligence agents of Shadi al-Mawlawi, a Sunni Lebanese anti-Assad activist allegedly involved in the trafficking of arms to the Free Syrian Army, and the killing by similarly friendly Lebanese army personnel of Sheikh Ahmad Abdul Wahed, a Sunni anti-Assad cleric who apparently did not heed the order to stop at a checkpoint, are no coincidences. That these twin episodes set off deadly street battles between Lebanese pro- and anti-Assad activists in Lebanon's two largest cities, Beirut and Tripoli, and that the funeral procession for Sheikh Abdul Wahed drew thousands of people who fired their rifles in the air as a sign of mourning, are exactly the kind of instability Assad is trying to foment next door.

That Assad is keen on sowing chaos in Lebanon to ensure his survival and that of his Alawite-dominated regime should not come as a surprise. By killing his own people in the thousands for opposing his continued authoritarian rule; by forcing the militarization of an otherwise peaceful Syrian revolution through untold, brute force; and by coaxing Syria's religious minorities into believing that their bleak destiny is in the hands of so-called "vengeful Salafists" should his "secular" regime collapse, Assad has shown that he will stop at nothing to maintain his power and the privileges (mostly illicit) that come with it.

However, while it is not very hard for Assad to fish in Lebanon's muddy sectarian waters, the Syrian dictator is finding it more difficult than usual to get his Lebanese allies to do his bidding. Lebanon is still exhausted from its past travails, including a 16-year civil war and a devastating slugfest between Hizballah and Israel, both of which left their scars on Lebanon's psyche, let alone its physical infrastructure. Accordingly, despite skirmishes here and there the Lebanese body politic does not have the appetite for yet another war.

In spite of its pro-Assad leanings, the Lebanese government has thus far been able to contain some of the fires: Mawlawi's sudden release on bail is one case in point; the Lebanese army's apology for the killing of Sheikh Abdul Wahed is another. Even Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah, a seemingly die-hard supporter of the Assad regime, appealed for calm when a group of his Shiite co-religionists were kidnapped in Aleppo, on their way to Lebanon from a pilgrimage in Iran.

Still, despite its current attempts to stay out of the Syrian conflict, one should not discount Lebanon's propensity to descend into chaos. It would not be the first time Lebanon is the theater for proxy wars. In this particular instance, the longer the crisis in Syria, the greater the likelihood Lebanon will be engulfed in war. International statements urging both sides of the Lebanese divide to exercise restraint may be too little, too late. What is urgently needed is for the international community, in tandem with the Syrian opposition, to remove the Assad regime before Assad causes further death and destruction in both Syria and Lebanon.-Published 31/5/2012 © bitterlemons-international.org


Murhaf Jouejati is professor of Middle East studies at the National Defense University's NESA Center for Strategic Studies. He also teaches at The George Washington University and is a scholar at the Middle East Institute.

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