Lebanese Border Tensions Spread Northward

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As a result of the Syrian civil war, border tension in Lebanon is no longer restricted to its southern border with Israel, writes Jihad el-Zein.

Once again, Lebanese Christians are flustered by the emergence of an “extra-sovereign” Sunni dynamic — one that is not bound by the constraints of Lebanese sovereignty.

After 1967, the Palestinians and their supporters among Lebanese Muslims and leftists transformed Lebanon’s southern border into a line of tension with the Israeli enemy. The Shiites, through Hezbollah and its Muslim and leftist supporters, inherited that situation and took on a similar role with different political objectives.

Since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution two years ago, and probably for a long time to come, Sunnis and their supporters have transformed Lebanon’s northern border (and some of its eastern border) into a tense border with their Syrian “brother.” 

Both in 1967 and 2011, Christians mostly opposed those transformations.

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Tense borders have a long history and are now frozen into a status quo that could eventually explode for reasons that have nothing to do with Lebanon. A tense border with the "brother" — with Sunni groups are involved in a military struggle — is new to Lebanese politics.

Throughout the Lebanese Republic’s history — from the reign of Syria’s leader Husni al-Zaim in 1949, to the revolt by Syrian nationalist leader Antun Saadeh, to the reign of Gamal Abdel Nasser over Syria in 1958, to the short reign of Salah al-Jadid and the long one of Hafez al-Assad — security and military tensions on Lebanon’s eastern and northern borders have always originated from Syria by means of Lebanese Muslims, Arab nationalists and leftists, over the loud protests of Christian parties. The one exception to that rule involved the deal struck between Assad and Henry Kissinger of the US administration, which resulted in Syria’s hardened Maronite adversaries, fearing the Palestinians, requesting help from the Syrian army, which entered under the banner of protecting the Christians.

Today, for the first time in the Lebanese Republic’s history, the source of tensions between Syria and Lebanon comes from the Lebanese side.

Of course, in both the old and the new situations, tension has left the country in a state of revolt, civil war or both, as is the situation in Syria now. In Syria, a popular revolt has turned into a civil war (I am amused, and saddened, when Western commentators say that Syria is “on the brink of civil war”!). The Syrian situation has all the elements of a revolution and all the elements of a civil war.

In Lebanon, the Sunnis’ popular and political sympathies lay with the Syrian revolution from the start. It was as if the Sunnis were just waiting for the right moment to put their “Lebanon First” slogan aside and become involved in the Syrian civil war. They are now involved in that war via Tripoli and Akkar, with the help of Saudi Arabia and France.

Once again, Christians have become flustered by the emergence of an “extra-sovereign” Sunni dynamic despite the bad memories that many Sunnis have of the Syrian regime — just as the Christians have been, and still are, flustered by the emergence of an extra-sovereign, or rather anti-sovereign, Shiite dynamic. The Shiite elite have always been with the “Lebanese identity,” but after the Shiites received military training imbued with anti-sovereign Arabist ideology during the Palestinian era, they reached a socio-political dynamic that placed the Shiites under the control of two “unified” parties since the 1980s and the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian revolution.

So the Shiites and Sunnis have once again revealed their sovereign affiliations. They are two poles in the Arab and Muslim region. They are two non-state forces that will remain so until the region is changed. This reveals the “historic mistake” committed by Lebanon’s Christian founders after World War I when they annexed to Lebanon the Shiite Jabal Amel — the land of tension with the Israeli enemy — and Tripoli and its Muslim environs, the land of tension with the Syrian “brother.”

There is no solution for the situation in the North. That situation is a reflection of the dynamic in the Sunni world, a dynamic that currently prevails in Syria, Iraq, the Gulf and North Africa. So let us get used to tense, and even explosive, border regions — just as is the case with the southern border, which remains tense to this day, as Hezbollah and regional powers succeeded in “institutionalizing” that tension. The southern border still erupts as part of the constant fight in Beirut between Iran and its numerous regional and international enemies.

The center of gravity of Lebanon's military tension moved to the north in 2005. Who could have imagined that within a generation we would be witnessing on Lebanon’s northern border a situation that resembles the long-term situation of the Lebanese border with Israel? The official border crossings in Lebanon’s north, al-Arida and al-Aboudiah, are the same ones that separated the “Alawite state” from Greater Lebanon from 1920 until the late 1930s. We don’t know what will happen to all the border crossings in the region, from Beirut to Baghdad.

Who would have imagined that the term “border villages” would start referring to villages in Wadi Khaled and Akkar rather that the villages of Jabal Amel in the far south?

We hope that the Lebanese army will be able to contain the tension in the north before it turns into a full-fledged military front. But it is useless to wait for a solution from within Lebanon. Akkar has become an area supporting the Syrian revolution on the one hand and the theater of operations for international and regional intelligence services on the other, similar to the situation in southern Lebanon under the Palestinians.

From the 1970s through 2000, social, nationalist (Palestine) and sectarian issues intersected in the Shiite south. Today, social, democratic (Syria) and sectarian issues are intersecting in the Sunni north. From the sectarian perspective, the new Shiite political class has used social and national issues to raise the banner of “deprivation” and ended up accepting the “Lebanese identity” after the Palestinians departed. Today, the Sunni political class uses the banners of democracy in Syria and poverty in Lebanon, from Bab al-Tabbaneh to Akkar. But what will it ultimately accept? It is too early to answer that question because the two-year-old Syrian revolution is still in its early phases.

In conclusion, in southern Lebanon, being “neighbors” with the Israelis has never meant coexisting with them; there is a conflict. But we wish to ask a question to those who are bombarding Lebanese homes from the Syrian side and those who are waging “jihad” and smuggling weapons to Syria from the Lebanese side: how will you coexist in the future? Because neither of you are going anywhere. To put it more bluntly, there are more than one million Alawites north of Lebanon’s border, all the way to Latakia (and about the same number of Sunnis and Christians). And there are about one million Sunnis in Tripoli, the historical and economic capital of the area, and its environs. How will those two sides coexist in the future? The same question applies to Tartous and its environs. The notion of being “neighbors” in the future should be taken into account throughout this war.

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Found in: syrian conflict, syrian-lebanese relations, syrian, sectarianism, refugees, northern border, lebanon, lebanese politics, lebanese-syrian relations, border security, border
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