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Lebanon: In the Shadow of the Syrian Storm | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat- There is an often said phrase that any political earthquake in the Middle East will lead to tremors in Lebanon. The country is a geopolitical chessboard that plays host to struggles ranging from the Arab-Israeli conflict to the Arab-Iranian Cold War. Yet despite a deepening and increasingly bloody conflict in Syria, Lebanon has remained largely calm over the past 14 months. While there have been both pro and anti-Syrian regime protests there has been no large-scale breakdown in order.

Nadim Shehadi, from the Chatham House think tank, described the situation in Lebanon as “immune to flaring up”. Shehadi explained to Asharq Al-Awsat: “It is un-inflammable…in the last seven years since the assassination of Hariri there have been many torches thrown at it and it has shown immunity.” In March, Western diplomats stated that “Lebanon has managed to maintain stability, thanks to an international decision to isolate the country from the turbulence in the region”.

Yet with violence in Syria worsening by the day, and deep scepticism over the durability of ceasefires, can Lebanon remain hermetically sealed from the chaos in its eastern neighbour?

Bordering on Chaos

The reality of the danger emanating from Syria was brutally highlighted by the cross-border fire that killed cameraman Ali Shaaban in April, as he reported from the north of the country [Lebanon]. Damascus offered “warm condolences”, with the Syrian government news agency claiming he was shot during a firefight with “an armed terrorist group” that was trying to infiltrate the country.

The 200-mile long border, dismissed in the past by Syrian leaders as a colonial imposition dividing al-Sham (Greater Syria), has suddenly become a contested zone in a similar way that Syria’s border with Iraq did following the 2003 US invasion. Syria only fully withdrew its forces from Lebanon in 2005 after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The regime in Damascus then proceeded to close official crossings on several occasions over the next two years as a means of applying political pressure on a divided Lebanese government. In November of last year, concerned by reports of the nascent ‘Free Syria Army’ (FSA) transiting the border, the Syrian army took the drastic step to start demarcating the border with security forces and landmines. According to Human Rights Watch many people fleeing the violence have been seriously wounded.

Khaled Daher, a member of Lebanon’s parliament from the border region, has accused the Lebanese army of colluding with Syria to extend al-Assad’s crackdown into Lebanon. Indeed after several truckloads of smuggled weapons were seized the Lebanese government vowed to boost security measures along the border.

At a safe house in Northern Lebanon in late March a smuggler complained to Asharq Al-Awsat that “the Lebanese army is cooperating with the Syrian army to control the border.” Joining the smuggler was a Syrian businessman visiting from Saudi Arabia, to where he was exiled in the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in 1981. He claimed they had already sent $800,000 to arm the FSA explaining, “They are selling [the arms] within Lebanon. Some steal from the Lebanese army and others are importing weapons to Lebanon.” In early April the Lebanese daily al-Akhbar reported that a Lebanese army intelligence officer in charge of an arms depot had been arrested on suspicion of stealing and selling arms and ammunitions.

Lebanese economists estimate that cross-border traffic between the two states has dropped by almost 75 percent since the protests began. Lebanon is dependent on Syria for its trade with most of the world with transit through the country representing 60 percent of Lebanon’s trade. While the legitimate traffic of goods between the two countries has plummeted, smugglers have continued to take advantage of the notoriously porous border to transport supplies and weapons into Syria as refugees and injured fighters pass in the opposite direction. The routes have remained relatively open for the duration of the uprising but in recent weeks the Syrian army has clamped down.

Wael Khaldy, assistant CEO of refugees for the ‘High Commission for Syrian Relief’ (HCFSR), is one of the chief coordinators finding safe passages for supplies and refugees. “It was much easier than now, before we had nearly 250 roads going into Syria. We specialize in medicine and food. Almost 80 percent of needed supplies come from Lebanon, and around 20 percent come from Turkey,” he says. According to Khaldy the vulnerability of the Syrian soldiers near the border and the exposure of their own supply routes means that under the table deals can be negotiated whereby “they let us get our supplies and we let them get theirs.”

However, as the Syrian forces have struggled to quash the armed insurrection in Homs and the surrounding regions they have taken a tougher line in cutting supply routes to and from neighboring Lebanon. This month, reports emerged of Syrian regime forces planting new landmines along the border in a bid to replace landmines washed by the winter floods or removed by activists and refugees. The HCFSR’s Khaldy says over the past two months alone he has lost three workers to land mines and seven more have lost legs. The mines prevent movement in both ways as the Syrian government has looked to reduce the number of refugees fleeing the country in order to avoid the impression of state breakdown. Refugees in northern Lebanon spoke of snipers, shelling and landmines killing people as they fled across the illegal routes.

The acceptance of Syrian refugees into Lebanon remains a highly sensitive issue. The Lebanese government’s unwillingness to set up formal facilities in the same way as the Turkish government means most Syrians who cross have largely been assimilated into urban areas. According to the UNHCR , the majority of the refugees reside with “host families” rather than in camps – a welcome development, since refugee camps are often characterized by overcrowding and permanent slum-like conditions. If larger numbers start making the move, as reports from Turkey suggest in early April, then more formal structures will need to be constructed. Interestingly the head of a coalition of Islamic charities in Lebanon has said they would establish refugee camps for the Syrians if the Lebanese government didn’t step up to provide for those in need. The Daily Star reported on a coalition consisting of around 30 Islamic charities with a multimillion dollar budget that is a primary provider for thousands of Syrian refugees in the country.

International agencies have recognised an uptick in the number of refugees fleeing Syria, with some estimating that there are 27,000 refugees now in Lebanon, several times more than the official UNHCR figures of just over 10,000. Arsal is a small town ensconced among the mountains of north Lebanon less than ten miles from Syria. It is a Sunni stronghold with close familial and societal links with the Sunni communities at the forefront of the uprising across the border. According to the UNHCR it now hosts over 350 refugee families who are sheltered in the homes of local families as well as in mosques and community centers.

Officials from the anti-Assad ‘Future’ party help coordinate the process of finding accommodation for the refugees. At a center where whole families share individual rooms, often with little more than foam mattresses and the clothes on their backs, Um Ali has found sanctuary. An elderly woman from a village near Idlib, she fled her home at the end of February. “The blast ripped her chest wide open,” she said whilst showing pictures of her sister who was killed in an artillery strike. Compelled by this violent loss and the continued fighting she decided to make the perilous journey to join her son in Lebanon. She can claim relative security in Arsal but like many other refugees there she is fearful of venturing further afield. Abou Ahmad, a refugee from Homs, explains “If it is not to go home I will not leave Arsal. There is no safety.” This trepidation is indicative of the divergent reactions among the Lebanese to the influx of Syrian refugees, with many of the villages surrounding Arsal dominated by the pro-Assad Hezbollah movement.

A Political Tightrope

Underpinning the Lebanese government’s decisions regarding the border, refugees and international sanctions on Syria is its desperate desire not to be the battlefield where pro and anti-Assad forces slug it out. The country’s politics have been largely defined over the past seven years by a pro or anti-Syrian divide, with the UN Special Tribunal looking into the killing of Hariri and the Syrian-Iranian supplied weapons of Hezbollah causing the government to fall and the streets of Beirut to be filled once again, if only briefly, with militiamen. In January, Lebanon criticized the Arab League’s call for President Bashar al-Assad to step down, saying Arab ministers had taken an “unbalanced” approach to the crisis in Syria. In February, Lebanon’s “policy of dissociation” was highlighted when they abstained in the United Nations General Assembly’s condemnation of the violence, choosing not to vote ‘no’ alongside traditional Syrian allies like Iran and Russia.

While the government has avoided taking sides Beirut has become a safe haven for Syrian activists and journalists who have fled the country to avoid arrest. However tensions between pro and anti-regime groups have spilled over into bouts of violence. On the 5th of April Syrian workers opposed to President Bashar al-Assad exchanged fire in Beirut’s southern suburbs with compatriots who support the Syrian government. Members of al-Jamaa al-Islamiya and those of the Baath Party in Lebanon have also clashed, with one incident in Sidon sparked after the Baathists vandalized anti-President Bashar al-Assad billboards erected by the Jamaa. Meanwhile there are rumours that Lebanon’s overcrowded Palestinian camps are becoming what AUB Professor Sari Hanafi described to the New York Times as “more and more of a battlefield” between those who are for or against the Assad regime in Syria.

Syria Street in the northern city of Tripoli is aptly named as it perhaps best represents the political fault line running throughout Lebanon and the country’s vulnerability to any tremors from next door. The road is flanked with two bitterly dived communities. On one side in Bab el Tebbaneh giant flags of the revolution are hoisted across streets and the Syrian uprising enjoys strong support from the local Sunni residents. Facing them on the neighboring hill of Jebel Mohesen there is a district of Alawis who remain staunchly loyal to the al-Assad regime.

“This is an old conflict but these recent events are because of Syria,” said Assad al-Hayek while gazing over the burnt out remnants of his home in Bab el-Tebbaneh. His apartment had been struck during a two-day fire fight in February that left three people dead and dragged the army into the affray with around a dozen soldiers injured.

The animosity between the two communities has turned violent numerous times in the past and almost always during periods of political crisis. The most recent bout of fighting coincided with particularly brutal fighting in the Syrian city of Homs and a series of anti-Assad rallies throughout Lebanon. Rifaat Ali Eid, head of the Arab Democratic Party and leader of the Alawi community in Tripoli, told Asharq Al-Awsat that “If anything happens to Syria there is no Lebanon… I can’t tell you if this regime will fall or not but I tell you if it does it will be very painful for all of the people, whether they are with Syria or against Syria.”

The Alawis in Lebanon only number around 50,000 and their battle with the impoverished Sunnis of Babel Tabbeneh will not in itself destabilize Lebanon. However, the fear is that this flashpoint could become a microcosm for a much wider conflict that rips open the sectarian wounds that ravaged the country during its own 15 year civil war.

Meanwhile concerns remain over Hezbollah, the Shia militia-cum-political party that has risen from being a clandestine resistance movement to the Israeli occupation in southern Lebanon to become the predominant military force in the country. This ascendancy of ‘the resistance’ has been predicated on an umbilical relationship with the Syrian regime. AUB Professor, Hilal Khashan, recently told the Voice of America; “Hezbollah’s heart and mind are in Iran. Hezbollah’s lung is in Syria, because Syria is Hezbollah’s lifeline.”

The strength, both military and political, of the Shia party has elicited bitter enmity from much of the Lebanese opposition. With the Syrian regime weakened, the opposition March 14 alliance has ratcheted up the pressure on Hezbollah. Amal Ghorayeb, assistant professor of political sciences at the Lebanese American University, explains, “The weaker the regime is the easier it is to hit Hezbollah and Iran… If the regime is weak then their allies will become weaker in turn.”

Hezbollah’s detractors have been escalating their calls on the party to disarm and to hand over its four suspected members indicted in the Special Tribunal for Lebanon – the investigation into the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri. The leader of the opposition Phalange Party, Amin Gemayel, said at a rally in February, “Is it logical to support the Arab peoples’ bid to end the domination of their regimes’ arms while we keep Lebanon’s people under the authority of [Hezbollah’s] arms?”

Hezbollah has remained steadfast in its support of the Syrian regime with the party’s leader proclaiming in a televised speech in early February, “Nobody could deny that there is an American-Israeli plan for regime change in Syria.” While the party remains the most powerful player within Lebanon cracks have started to appear in their political alliances. What is more, a recent assassination attempt on Samir Geagea, by unknown assailants, has revived a menacing specter all too familiar within the Lebanese political arena.

The key question is; will Lebanon be able to protect its neutrality if the conflict in Syria consolidates into a protracted civil war? Of particular concern to the tightrope-walking Lebanese elites will be statements from the opposition body, The Syrian National Council, that they have received international pledges of $176m in humanitarian assistance and $100m in salaries for the fighters inside Syria. These resources will need to get into Syria somehow and smuggling networks through Lebanon are an obvious route. The Syrian regime has shown a willingness to strike across the border in the past and will likely use both conventional and unconventional tactics to strike against any strategic threats both perceived and real. As Mark Malloch-Brown, former UN Deputy Secretary-General wrote recently “Qatari and Saudi Arabian support for the rebels will lead regime allies, including Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, to step up their trouble-making”.

Kahlil Gibran wrote in the Mirrors of the Soul that “your Lebanon is an arena for men from the West and men from the East. My Lebanon is a flock of birds fluttering in the early morning as shepherds lead their sheep into the meadow”. While Lebanese politicians of all stripes have to date taken a largely passive approach to keeping their traditional pro or anti-Syrian positions, the government has striven to remain neutral despite these internal differences and distance itself from events in Syria. In the shadow of escalating violence, a more pro-active approach to deny space for both pro and anti-regime elements may be the only recipe to protect the stability that Gibran once imagined.

Additional reporting by Zak Brophy in Beirut.