Edition 19 Volume 10 - May 31, 2012
Is the Syrian revolution overflowing into Lebanon?
Imperial claims on fragile space
The regional dimension has been striving to take over Syrian local dynamics.
Fallout from the Syrian crisis
Lebanese must ask themselves, "How can we stop the Assad regime from unleashing its wrath against our country?"
When Syria sneezes
Assad's strategy is to threaten civil war in Lebanon so as to deter the international community from dislodging his regime by force.
The Lebanon-Syria lines have been erased
The evidence is clear and the signs multiply daily.
Imperial claims on fragile space
From the time that the Syrian uprising began in March 2011, the regional dimension of the revolt against the regime of President Bashar Assad has been striving to take over its local Syrian dynamics. Not surprisingly, imperial and regional actors--those that are willing to be involved, including the United States, United Nations, Arab League, Turkey as well as the anti-US camp such as Russia and China--have engaged hesitantly. The mercurial entanglement of each party, each with particular interests and reservations, has confirmed the idea that Syria is wider than it appears on the map. Iran, Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine and the controversies that they are immersed in appear as an immediate extension of Syria and the Syrian issue.
On the one hand, the uprising has magnified Syrian local space; it cohered Syrians, giving citizens a sense of "Syrianness" based on a common resistance against a corrupt dictatorial regime. On the other hand, local Syrian political dynamics gradually turned out to be a derivative of larger regional and international dynamics and actors. The rhetoric and actions of the internal and external Syrian oppositions have been operating within these dual and competing structures.
As has been the case for decades, Lebanon is viewed as a "fragile space" that the Syrian uprising could flow into in a "spillover effect". Mainstream western and local actors that consider Lebanon a mosaic of races and religions forever in hostility with each other have opted for an elite-dominated sectarian political system. Yet this has only exacerbated the country's social and economic polarization--thus the fragility. Syrian tutelage and active involvement in Lebanese affairs over the last 30 years have contributed to this fragile Lebanese space, which has become a surfing arena for a number of external actors.
In the eyes of western imperial powers and Lebanese elites, the most alarming aspect of the Syrian uprising's overflow into Lebanon revolves around Hizballah and related sectarian issues in the country. As a Lebanese journalist elaborates in an article in al-Akhbar, Lebanese society and its political actors have split over supporting the anti-Assad uprising or the Assad regime. While Hizballah, some Christian parties and a section of the Druze political grouping have taken sides with Assad, some Sunni political actors, some Christian politicians and some Druze support the Syrian uprising. While in recent months Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah has become less outspoken in support of the Assad regime, the strategic and political affinity between the two seems to be intact for the moment. Michel Aoun's anti-Assad speech placing Rafic Hariri and Samir Qassir among Syrian anti-Assad martyrs is one example of the thinking of the anti-Assad faction in Lebanese politics.
The demonstrations in favor of the Syrian uprising by Lebanese Sunni groups in Tripoli and clashes between Shiite and Sunni groups have since summer 2011 increased fears of a violent escalation of Shiite-Sunni tensions in the county. More violent incidents have crystallized these tensions since then. The killing of two members of the anti-Assad March 14 political alliance, Sunni sheikhs Ahmad Abdul Wahed and Mohamad Hussein Merheb, by the Lebanese army on May 20 in Akkar, northern Lebanon was one such incident and led to violent clashes in Beirut. The response was not delayed: 11 Lebanese Shiites were kidnapped by the Syrian armed resistance on May 22 and taken hostage in northern Syria.
The reconfiguration of the various parties in Lebanon and the resulting sectarian manifestations are taking place in relation to the political transition that Syrian politics and society have been experiencing over the last 15 months. Presumably, Lebanese space will maintain its fragility as long as elite-dominated sectarian politics, culture and society (as well as its economic and social institutions) are not restored by a Lebanese "spring".-Published 31/5/2012 © bitterlemons-international.org
Seda Altug teaches at Bogazici University in Istanbul.
Fallout from the Syrian crisis
Relative calm has returned to Lebanon after three days of mourning for sheikhs Ahmad Abdul Wahed and Mohamad Hussein Merheb. Meanwhile, political bickering between the March 14 opposition coalition and the Mikati government continues to escalate. Nevertheless, the tone of accusations regarding the responsibility of the army and its command for these killings has softened and almost disappeared.
For their part, after a general meeting convened in Beirut, the March 14 leaders held Prime Minister Najib Mikati and his government fully responsible for the shooting in Akkar as well as for the armed clashes that followed in Tripoli and in the Beirut neighborhood of Tariq al-Jadideh. In a communique read by former prime minister Fuad Siniora, they said,"...the current government is complicit [in the conspiracy against Lebanon] and is incapable of handling the national responsibility, given the nature of its formational composition and given the fact that it is an extension of the Syrian-Iranian axis that does not believe in Lebanon's stability and sovereignty."
Violent clashes have begun in Tripoli between Alawite supporters of the Syrian regime and Sunni backers of the Syrian opposition. This violent escalation--a consequence of the ongoing Syrian crisis--could hardly have come as a surprise. It was clear that events in Syria would have a major impact on Lebanon's stability, primarily because of Syria's strong influence in Lebanon and the tight ethnic and political links of the Alawites in Tripoli with the Assad regime.
Nor could the negative effects of the violence in Syria be attributed only to the steady influx of Syrian refugees seeking shelter in Lebanon. Additional causes are recurrent cross-border shootings and violations of Lebanese sovereignty by the Syrian army as well as repeated abductions of Syrian dissidents residing in Lebanon.
A new round of violence began on May 12, 2012 following the arrest of Sunni Islamist Shadi al-Mawlawi by the Lebanese General Security Directorate. Mawlawi was accused of supporting terrorist activities against the Assad regime, a claim totally rejected by the local community and Islamist factions in Tripoli. As a result of this "illegal" arrest, protests exploded in the city, soon escalating into a full-fledged violent confrontation between the Sunnis of Bab-Attabanih and the Alawites of Jabal Mohsin that has thus far resulted in eight deaths and a dozen wounded.
Violence spread to Beirut after the turmoil fueled by the deaths of the two sheikhs. Clashes occurred mostly during the night in the area of Tariq al-Jadideh when gunmen from rival groups opposing and supporting the Assad regime opened fire on each other. Two people were killed and 16 injured in the fight.
There are several factors behind this rapid escalation. Most important is the linkage between the uprising in Syria and Lebanese Sunni sympathy for the Syrian opposition, especially in the north of Lebanon. The people there have provided shelter to Syrian refugees and have been accused by the Syrian regime and its proxies of supporting Syrian rebels by smuggling weapons and funneling money coming from Gulf countries, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
During the first year of the Syrian uprising, the Damascus regime seemed to be content that a friendly government was ruling in Beirut even though that government announced it would remain neutral and disassociated itself from the Syrian crisis. Now things have changed: the Syrian regime, increasingly sensitive to external and internal pressures, is demanding more support from its allies in Lebanon. It has turned to those allies both inside and beyond the Mikati government to provide the necessary support for its claim that terrorist and Islamist groups from al-Qaeda and other organizations are crossing the Lebanese border into Syria and that the smuggling of large quantities of weapons is continuing.
The Syrian regime leverages these accusations to undermine the opposition and justify its violent actions against its own people. Lebanese Minister of Defense Fayez Ghosn indeed provided the requested information even though there are no indications that anything of the kind is happening from Akkar or Tripoli or the Ersal area in the Bekaa.
Damascus used the information provided by its proxies in Lebanon in a letter presented by its ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Jaafari, to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the Security Council. It accused Lebanese political factions of incubating terrorist groups from al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood that are attacking the security of the Syrian people and undermining the ceasefire plan of UN Special Envoy Kofi Annan. The letter noted ongoing attempts to smuggle to the rebels large quantities of arms and ammunition that are arriving in Lebanon illegally by sea and by air.
Against all denials of Jaafari's accusations by the president, prime minister and interior minister of Lebanon, Damascus maintains that it is facing a terrorist conspiracy funded and directed from abroad, not least by Saudi Arabia and Qatar that are arming the rebels to oust Assad.
The fear today in Lebanon is that, with the empowerment of Islamist groups in Tripoli and Akkar that are the most vocal and active supporters of the Syrian revolution, the Assad regime could retaliate against them as part of a strategy of undermining the Syrian opposition and punishing Assad's adversaries in Lebanon.
The international community has expressed strong concern regarding the high risks Lebanon faces as a result of the fallout from the Syrian revolution. The risks can only be aggravated as Lebanon sinks deeper into its own political crisis, with sharp divisions among communities and political parties, against the backdrop of the hot debate over whether to support the Syrian revolution or the Assad regime.
Facing such high risks and uncertainties, Lebanese must ask themselves the question, "What can we do to stop the Assad regime from unleashing its wrath against our country?" The safest path is probably for Lebanese to respond favorably and sincerely to President Michel Suleiman's call to resume the National Dialogue as soon as possible.-Published 31/5/2012 © bitterlemons-international.org
Nizar Abdel-Kader is a political analyst/columnist at Ad-Diyar newspaper in Beirut. He has authored four books on Lebanon and regional political and strategic issues.
When Syria sneezes
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.
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.
The Lebanon-Syria lines have been erased
Three or four gentlemen regularly sit outside a small grocery store, drinking coffee and smoking argileh water pipes, in the Hizballah neighborhood of Haret Hreik in south Beirut. One of them commented last Tuesday evening, as he smelled the burning tires a few streets away where some of our neighbors had closed the airport road in protest against the apparent kidnapping of 11 "family" members: "It feels an awful lot like Ain el-Rummaneh around here."
His reference was to the April 13, 1975 slaughter of 30 Palestinians when Bashar Gemayal's right wing Christian militia attacked a local bus carrying the refugees not far from where the speaker was sitting. The man went on to describe how Ain el-Rummaneh was the spark that ignited Lebanon's 15-year civil war that saw more 150,000 dead, another one million people--a quarter of the population--wounded, 350,000 displaced and yet another quarter of the population depart Lebanon, most never to return.
"There are sparks nearly every day now. Which one will cause the explosion, we don't know, but it is certain that one of them will," he said.
The gentleman sitting next to him, a Palestinian named Mansour, assured his friends that there will not be a civil war because "those who have the arms to win one do not want one and those who want one don't have the weapons or disciplined militia [needed] to win a civil war. Some are now joining the war in Syria as a substitute, to achieve their political goals."
It appears that Lebanon is not the object of spillover from the Syrian conflict but rather that it is very much an integral part of the escalating conflict in Syria.
The evidence is clear and the signs multiply daily. They are too numerous for itemization but include the warning by all six Gulf Cooperation Council countries against travel by their citizens to Lebanon, the concern expressed by the two kings Abdullah (in Saudi Arabia and Jordan) over the current status of "a particular group in Lebanon", the alarm sounded by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton over the potentially catastrophic effects of the Syrian uprising on Lebanon, the arrest of Shadi al-Mawlawi, and the clashes in Tripoli that followed the shooting of Sunni cleric Ahmad Abdul Wahed at an army checkpoint. They also include the fighting last weekend near Shatila Palestinian refugee camp in the mixed Tariq al-Jadideh neighborhood against a small Sunni party aligned with the anti-Syrian March 8 coalition, the kidnapping by still-unknown persons of a group of Lebanese Shiite pilgrims, the bombing of a bus carrying Lebanese Shiite pilgrims in Baghdad, clashes between students on Lebanese college campuses and even tensions at high schools, and the clash in Ras Beirut just last Wednesday. Indeed, there are regular skirmishes on Beirut's streets.
These events have rendered the government of Lebanon and many of its leaders the butt of jokes and derision. The one national institution that was touted as being a unifying force, the Lebanese army that is respected by most Lebanese, has had its image shaken over charges that its troops may have assassinated a Sunni sheikh.
Each incident has been laced with pro- or anti-Syria overtones. Each event was rooted in the Syrian uprising, which some claim is in turn rooted in the US-Saudi-Qatar project to deal a blow to Iran, Hizballah, Russia and others in the region who are realigning political realities. Given the deep historical, familial, cultural, political, and economic links between Syria and Lebanon, it is not surprising that what happens in one country affects the other and that international players seeking to manipulate these events have remained the same for decades.
The extent of the entanglement raises the question not whether Syria truly left Lebanon in 2005 when it withdrew forces that had occupied the country since 1976--after all, its other manifold links remained in place--but if it is possible or desirable to separate the two countries on this issue.
The myriad sparks of the past several weeks suggest that Syria and Lebanon remain inextricably connected and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Spillover lines seem already to have been erased; the territory of the two sovereign countries is in some respects one, despite the Sykes-Picot agreement and the French-engineered confessional system meant to truncate Greater Syria.-Published 31/5/2012 © bitterlemons-international.org
Franklin Lamb is doing research in Lebanon.