While Bashar al-Assad announced his new solution for Syria on Jan. 6, many recalled the widely known saying about the country’s heritage and its diaspora abroad, which reads: Every person in the world has two homelands, his place of birth first, and Syria second. For some time now Syria’s bordering countries have developed a similar saying: The border countries suffer from two crises, the Syrian crisis in Syria, and the Syrian crisis in the surrounding region.
The violent events in Syria that have dragged on for more than a year and a half have laid bare the fact that Syria's center actually lies in its neighboring countries. As a result of complicated historical, geographical and demographic factors, it seems that any crisis that befalls Syria befalls the entire region. Iraq, for instance, is experiencing the Syrian crisis on two levels: the fate of Syria's Kurds and its subsequent impact on Iraqi Kurdistan, and the effect that the displaced Sunni majority from Syria will have on the growing Sunni Awakening that stands opposed to the al-Maliki regime. It is no coincidence that just as the Syrian crisis has reached its critical stages, relations between Erbil and Baghdad have become strained and demonstrations have grown in the Sunni Anbar governorate in western Iraq.
Turkey is riding out the Syrian crisis with equal dread and is concerned with two uncertainties: What will Syria's Kurds do, and how will they impact Turkey's Kurds? And what repercussions will Syria’s fate have on the pluralist demographic composition of Turkey itself? The latter question is especially relevant to the relations between Turkey’s Kurds, Turks and its more than 20 million Alawites, who are composed of both Arab Alawites and Alawites with Asian roots.
As for Jordan, it is too fragile to establish even one refugee camp for displaced Syrians within its borders. When it tried this, clashes erupted at the Zaatari Camp on the Syrian-Jordanian border between Libyan mujahideen displaced from Syria’s Daraa region and the Jordanian armed forces. Meanwhile, the Palestinian and Muslim Brotherhood contingents are active in Jordan, and both are strongly tied and reactive to the events unfolding in Syria.
When it comes to its vulnerability to spillover from the Syrian crisis, Lebanon is an entirely different story. It is a story which has its roots in the 1975 civil war, the absorption of Palestinian refugees following the creation of Israel in 1948 and even the founding of Lebanon itself in 1920. The ties which bind Lebanon and its neighboring countries, foremost among them Syria, run deep, to the point that they are nearly an organic extension of one another. Thus, since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis in mid-March 2011, the Lebanese people have been continually re-discovering the extent of their larger neighbor’s influence on their affairs.
They have once again become aware of the indelible link between their country’s economic traffic and Syria’s. They discovered, for example, that about one quarter of Lebanon’s tourism from the Gulf comes by way of the Al-Ramtha crossing on the Jordanian-Syrian border, close to the Daraa region where the Syria crisis began. This route into Lebanon is now shut, and the tourists have stopped coming. The Lebanese people have also been reminded of what their school textbooks first taught them, that the nerve center for Lebanon’s commercial transit lies in the Port of Beirut, and that when passage along the Beirut-Damascus Road becomes arduous, Beirut’s main port is nearly paralyzed. The same can be said of its industrial exports, which in 2012 fell almost 8 percent compared to the previous year, almost entirely as a result of the Syrian crisis.
The Lebanese people have found that these same deleterious effects have impacted their security. There has been much talk (which Al-Monitor has covered in previous articles) of a growing jihadist presence infiltrating the country from Syria. Palestinians have poured over the border from Syria to Lebanon because of social, economic, security and political difficulties. They are flocking to a delicately balanced and structurally complex country whose people have not forgotten that their terrible 1975 civil war erupted primarily because of the arrival of an armed Palestinian presence. Moreover, two groups that have traditionally been parties to the internal conflict in Beirut have become opposing forces in the Syrian conflict. Hezbollah is an integral part of the axis that stretches from Iran via Damascus and then Baghdad, right down to Beirut. By contrast, former prime minister Saad Hariri leads the Lebanese faction that opposes this axis, which itself is an organic extension of the Saudi-Qatari-Turkish axis.
Ramifications from the events in Syria threaten to drag Lebanon into an even more dreadful state. It's possible that the whole country of Lebanon may descend into a civil war parallel to Syria's.
Experts believe that this latent danger revolves around two points. The first is linked to what transpires in the Yarmouk refugee camp for Palestinians, located five miles east of Damascus. The second is linked to the fate of the military demarcation lines on the banks of the Orontes River, which divide the Syrian regime and its rivals.
Experts explain that the the Yarmouk camp could plunge Beirut and its environs into all-out war. Inside that camp resides the armed leadership of the Palestinian faction known as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, General Command. It is led by Ahmed Jibril, an ally of the Assad regime. This faction has two established military bases on Lebanese territory, one based in Qusaya, in the Bekaa region of eastern Lebanon bordering Syria, and the second base in Naameh, a mere 4 miles south of Beirut. It is important to note that the latter site is a fortified camp in the mountains, replete with secret tunnels which the Lebanese government has been unable to eradicate for nearly 30 years. Lebanese officials fear that a tipping of the scales inside the Yarmouk camp would have a direct impact on the General Command bases and possibly change their role in the Lebanese conflict. In other words, if Jibril’s authority in Yarmouk and in Damascus fails, the two bases in Lebanon could switch from being friendly with the pro-Assad factions in Lebanon, to being opposed to them. If this happened, the Central Bekaa and Beirut’s immediate environs would almost certainly be dragged into open combat.
Anti-Hezbollah, Sunni-majority areas can be found to the north and the south of the Qusaya base in Lebanon’s Bekaa region. Any change in the political posturing of the Palestinian militants in this base could sever the communication lines between Beirut and Damascus, which are a vital asset for both the Syrian regime and Hezbollah. It could also lead to the proliferation of Sunni militias as a response to the expansion of armed Shiite activity. Both of these arenas are primed to ignite.
As for the Naameh base, a shift in the militarized Palestinian presence to anything other than its current political role could threaten to besiege the Lebanese capital. It is especially well positioned to cut off the coastal road between Beirut’s southern outskirts and southern Lebanon, which runs between Hezbollah’s two key strongholds and could have direct military repercussions. This road is peppered with other large Palestinian refugee camps, from Burj al-Barajneh and Sabra and Shatila adjacent to the Beirut’s Shiite quarters, down through Ain el-Helweh near Sidon at the southernmost gate, and ending with the camps deep in the Shiite south, which include Al-Bas and Rashidiyeh in Tyre.
Over the past weeks, a series of defections in Damascus and Yarmouk in protest of Jibril’s leadership have stoked fears of these possibilities. Meanwhile, Hariri and his followers in Lebanon have made vigorous attempts to forge a new alliance with the Palestinian forces, evidenced by the two visits paid by Hariri’s people, including Member of Parliament Bahia Hariri, to Hamas in Gaza more than a month ago.
In the next article: how Lebanon is threatened by the ongoing war for control of the banks of the Orontes River in Syria.
Jean Aziz is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Lebanon Pulse. He is a columnist at Al-Akhbar Lebanese newspaper and the host of a weekly political talk show on OTV, a Lebanese TV station.