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Lebanon as 'Theater of Surprise' In Syria War

Lebanon is the traditional battlefield for regional conflicts.
Lebanese army soldiers install barbed wire to close a road leading to the U.S. embassy in Awkar, north of Beirut, before a protest against potential U.S. strikes on Syria, September 7, 2013. U.S. officials ordered non-emergency personnel and their family members out of Lebanon on Friday "due to threats," the U.S. embassy in Beirut said in a statement. REUTERS/Hasan Shaaban (LEBANON - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST MILITARY) - RTX13BL1

The world today is waiting and worrying. The UN Security Council is waiting for the French draft resolution, which builds on the Russian offer to put Syrian chemical weapons under international control. US President Barack Obama is waiting anxiously, too. He wants to know whether this offer is more than a political maneuver and could be a reliable mechanism to avoid the tough test of Congress — which may weigh heavily on his legacy — and avoid a war he never wanted. And Lebanon, the tiny country, is waiting for its destiny and worrying about it also.

Despite the clarity of the international stance toward the Assad regime and the use of chemical weapons, despite the international and Arab support for the strike that US Secretary of State John Kerry has managed to cobble together in the past few days, and despite the fact that the US military is in standby mode to strike Syria without a UN umbrella — whether in terms of legitimate reasons, especially those related to using chemical weapons, or other reasons associated with the United States’ credibility and its role in the Middle East — it remains uncertain whether Congress will endorse the president’s decision to punish Syria.

The reason for the uncertainty is that the US electorate is against war. The other reason is ideological. Both the far-right Tea Party and the far-left are against the United States getting involved in the world’s affairs. This is the new US isolationism.

Congress’ mood will not change without pressure from Middle East lobbies, especially the pro-Israel lobby American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Will pressure groups be able to make the undecided Congress take a decisive decision, as happened in 1991, when, despite the hesitancy of some congressmen, Congress voted to punish the Iraqi regime for possessing weapons of mass destruction?

The statement issued by AIPAC on Sept. 3 was remarkable. The statement’s tone was harsh and it contained a lot of details. That was peculiar because since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, Israel has been behaving like a bystander toward Syria. The Israelis did not have a unified assessment toward the ongoing events in Syria. Some, such as Israeli President Shimon Peres, criticized the brutality of the Assad regime, while others considered the Alawite regime a guarantee for Israel’s security.

When Israel last bombed Syrian targets in May 2013, Netanyahu said, “The strike was directed against Hezbollah, not the Syrian regime.” That statement accurately reflected Israel’s concerns and its policy of remaining neutral toward the warring parties in Syria. At the same time, Israel was keen to control the rules of the game and keep the conflict within a framework set by Israel — one that does not harm Israeli security or interests. Also, Israel rejects being dragged into others' wars, or in accordance with conditions set by other parties.

Israel is mostly worried about Iran and its nuclear and nonnuclear capabilities more than anything else. In fact, the Israeli minister of technology and space said on Sept. 9 during the World Summit on Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya: “Iran, not Syria, is the biggest threat." He accused Iran of turning Syria into a platform for terrorist and ideological activities and into an Iranian base that threatens Israel’s security.

As everyone knows, the confrontation in Syria is primarily against Iran because of the latter’s military readiness. The confrontation with Russia doesn’t go beyond the diplomatic framework, and Moscow quickly said that it wouldn’t intervene in a military strike on Syria. 

Although punishing the use of chemical weapons and maintaining the international order established following World War I are the legal bases for the planned strike, the strike’s military and political dimensions — which have started becoming clear during the discussions of Congress and the statements by lobbies — are the confrontation with Iran.

Because of that, Lebanon finds itself in the eye of the storm. Lebanon, and not Syria, is the traditional battleground between Iran and Israel since after the Madrid Conference, whose sponsors excluded Iran from the negotiating table. That exclusion was the reason behind the Iran-backed “resistance” policy.

Since then, there have been bombings, indirect wars between Iran and Israel and wars between Hezbollah and Israel, the first of which was the 1996 Grapes of Wrath Operation and the second of which was the July 2006 war.

Assad said on Sept. 9 to the US CBS network that non-state actors — meaning Hezbollah — would respond if Syria is attacked. This shows who the true players are in that conflict and those responsible for responding to any “aggression.”

Even though Syria will be the theater of military operations this time if Congress approves a strike, the confrontation theater may yet expand and turn Lebanon into a theater of surprises. Lebanon, in addition to being a breeding ground for security operations in various forms because of its weak central government and army, also remains Hezbollah’s headquarters and the launching point for war with Israel.

Perhaps the first indicators of the fragility of the security situation was the US State Department’s decision to reduce its Beirut staff and the French Embassy’s request that its nationals exercise utmost caution. In that same context, Turkey decided to withdraw its United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) soldiers in charge of implementing UN Resolution 1701, issued in the wake of the war in July 2006. 

Will Lebanon, the US-friendly country — as Kerry pointed out when speaking in the Senate a few days ago — and the entity which was established in 1920 with French support, participate in a coalition of the willing to punish a regime allied with Iran? Lebanon is a small country built on delicate demographic balances that regional storms can obliterate at any minute.

Those concerns were indirectly expressed by Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who fears that a military strike on Syria may turn Lebanon into a launching pad to repel the US aggression, especially since Lebanon is the weakest link and that Congress’s mandate doesn’t allow for military action inside Lebanon. So the Lebanese arena remains the weak underbelly of the coalition forces — unless another party that is not shackled by congressional authorization gets involved.

Sami Nader is an economist, Middle Eastern affairs analyst and communications expert with extensive expertise in corporate strategy and risk management. He currently directs the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs, focusing on economics and geopolitics of the Levant, and is a professor for USJ University in Beirut. On Twitter: @saminader

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