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Lebanon's Gathering Storm Over Syria

As the Syrian conflict enters its second year, Lebanon's security situation is weakening as sectarian tendencies rise, signaling a coming crisis, writes Scarlett Haddad.
A supporter of Sunni Muslim Salafist leader Ahmad al-Assir carries a placard as he stands next to Lebanese soldiers on their military vehicle, during a protest in Sidon, southern Lebanon, in support of residents of the northeastern town of Arsal in the country's Bekaa Valley, February 5, 2013. Four Lebanese soldiers and two gunmen were killed in clashes in Bekaa Valley on Friday after militants attacked a Lebanese army unit, security sources said. The placard reads: "We want a Lebanese Army for all Lebanese

It is with a measure of nonchalance that the Lebanese have trusted Western declarations in favor of stability in Lebanon. After the Oct. 17, 2012, assassination of Maj. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan and the events that followed, the ambassadors of five United Nations Security Council countries rushed — one might recall — to the Baabda palace to affirm the commitment of their countries to maintaining the current government to ensure stability.

Arming themselves with this unusual approach, the Lebanese believed they could let anything go, opening their country to foul winds without endangering their stability. This discourse, which sought to incite sectarian discord and hatred, multiplied (because of the electoral campaign), while those propagating it failed to consider anything but their own narrow interests. They truly seemed to be playing with fire. Today, however, the security situation has become a constant worry, and the incidents in the north and south are escalating, affecting the capital Beirut.

All at once, the situation along the Lebanese-Syrian border has quickly deteriorated. Meanwhile in Sidon, Sheik Ahmad al-Assir is increasing his provocations and in Beirut sticks of dynamite and bombs explode throughout the night. These incidents are accompanied by inflammatory discourse that goes so far as to call for Sunni soldiers to leave the army to protect the Sunnis against Hezbollah. In a single day, for example, Assir provoked a situation in Abra (close to Sidon), Sheik Dai al-Chahal went from Tripoli to Majdel Anjar, the Islamist camp at Roumieh prison saw a revolt, and Sheik Hisham Khalife, a confidant of Lebanon’s Grand Mufti, was forced to leave his rostrum at the Mohammad al-Amin Mosque in Beirut because of protesters close to the Future Movement.

Officially, the government has given full coverage to the army to ensure security. But the fact of the matter is that the army is being denigrated and associated more and more by certain sheiks and deputies with Hezbollah and Iran. The situation is thus more serious than it was in 1975, when there had never before been a more incendiary discourse between communities, particularly between the Sunnis and Shiites. This is why it is no longer a matter of mere talk or politicking to mobilize the electorate, but an actual plan that seeks to provoke discord between Sunnis and Shiites throughout the region — from Iraq, passing through Syria, and all the way to Lebanon. The direct questioning of the army at this point is a conclusive sign. 

For the moment, the ingredients of the explosion are coming together and the ground is being prepared for instability and to be led by sectarian instincts. Meanwhile, officials are convinced that the West does not want Lebanon to become unstable, and thus do not see anything coming and engage themselves in squabbles, while they are the only ones who still believe in their policy of dissociation. The Syrian file, however, is no longer a subject of division among the Lebanese. It has become a smoldering spark.

Otherwise, it seems clear that henceforth the situation in Syria is set to last for a long time. Two years after events broke out, the Syrian opposition is still not able to claim any decisive victories on the ground and, in spite of the predictions, the Assad regime is holding its own with an army of 200,000 men and the appearance of a relatively coherent state. Save any unexpected events, it could hold out for at least a year. However, if the regime and its allies still think it’s a matter of victory — where in the beginning the objective was to topple the regime — the US does not seem in a hurry to find a solution. The continuation of clashes in Syria weakens, from the American perspective, both the regime and its main ally in Iran, slowly putting Lebanon’s Hezbollah up on the witness stand.

For the US, the situation would be completely acceptable if the regime and extremists carried out a merciless war while Iran loses its will to help the regime both financially and militarily. From this point of view, the hour of great compromise that will undoubtedly take place between the great powers such as Russia and the US has not yet come. The protagonists of the region must become weaker first. As for the countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who openly support the Syrian opposition, even if they wish to expedite the process they cannot spark it without imposing a decisive situation.

In this context, with several thousands of Syrian combatants and the solid support of the regime from Hezbollah, is Lebanon able to preserve its stability? With each passing day, the fire in Syria draws nearer and nearer. Above all somewhere, it is as if there conspiring forces working day and night to lead Lebanon toward this very Syrian fire. After all, if the Lebanese do not worry about their own interests, why would anybody else?

Scarlett Haddad is an analyst at the Francophone Lebanese daily L'Orient-Le Jour. She specializes in Lebanese domestic political issues, in addition to Syrian, Palestinian and Iranian matters as addressed from Lebanon's perspective, including topics concerning Hezbollah and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

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