Commentary | February 23, 2012

Lebanon Eyes Unrest in Syria

As the Syrian uprising approaches its one year anniversary, Syria’s downward spiral toward civil war is weighing heavily on Lebanon, and although most political and sectarian groups have a clear interest in stability in Syria, there is no consensus on how to encourage security and handle relations with Syria’s regime and its opposition.

Rights groups are estimating that some 7,000 civilians have been killed in Syria since March 2011, and the regime’s military response has intensified even further following the Russian and Chinese veto in the U.N. Security Council of a resolution that backed an Arab peace plan aimed at stopping the violence. Assad’s latest call for a Feb. 26 national referendum on a new draft constitution that would end the Baath party’s monopoly on power was quickly dismissed by the Syrian opposition and Western powers alike. The window for a political settlement seems to be quickly closing, bringing Syria even deeper into a civil war and threatening to enflame an already tense neighborhood.

Fifty-two miles west of Damascus, the Lebanese government in Beirut is following these developments with interest and worry but has not joined the Arab League or Western states in calling for Assad to step down. Lebanese officials have made it clear that Lebanon could never support a U.N. resolution that would allow the international community to intervene to resolve the crisis in Syria, mostly for fear of negative repercussions this might have on Lebanon. In fact, when the Syrian question first came to the Security Council last year, Lebanon dissociated itself from the presidential statement condemning Syria and has followed suit in the Arab League as well.

Most recently, Lebanese Foreign Affairs Minister Adnan Mansour announced that Lebanon would not attend the “Friends of Syria” conference due to be held in the Tunisian capital Tunis on Feb. 24, stating: “in harmony with our decision to disassociate Lebanon from developments in Syria, we will not join the conference in Tunis.”

Long-standing, polarizing divisions between supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime have forced the government in Beirut to pursue this policy of “dissociation” from the turmoil next door. But as refugees cross the border to escape the violence and weapons and fighters pour freely through the smuggling routes that have long connected Lebanon with Syrian towns now at the center of conflict—such as Homs and Zabadani—the idea that Lebanon can dissociate itself from what is happening next door looks increasingly like wishful thinking.

What all political parties in Lebanon seem to agree on is that widespread instability in Syria—or worse, a sectarian civil war—poses the most significant threat to Lebanon. Lebanese actors across the sectarian spectrum share the perception that Syria’s potential descent into chaos would not be in their strategic interest and, by dissociating the country from the Syrian unrest, are seeking to insulate Lebanon from its neighbor’s instability. This view stems from the concern that massive unrest in Syria could spill over into Lebanon, disrupting the country’s fragile status quo by provoking widespread sectarian strife.

However, Lebanese consensus on core national interests vis-a-vis Syria does not go much further. As with most issues in Lebanon, Syria’s unrest is viewed through a sectarian lens, and significant differences characterize Lebanon’s key political actors and religious communities.

Relations With the Syrian Opposition

The differences were most visible on Jan. 25 when the opposition Syrian National Council issued an open letter to the Lebanese people, stressing that it seeks to establish strong ties between Syria and Lebanon that respect the sovereignty and independence of each country. In the letter, the group pledged to end the “security-intelligence role that has meddled in Lebanese affairs and to thwart the smuggling of arms across the border.” It also proposed the formation of a joint investigation committee that would tackle the case of Lebanese prisoners in Syrian jails, adding that “the Lebanese–Syrian Higher Council would be dissolved and agreements between the two countries would be revised.” The letter continued: “Democracy in Syria is the best support for Lebanon’s independence; it is an opportunity to put an end to the dark chapter of Lebanese–Syrian ties that have been marred by Syria’s dictatorial regime that has practiced the ugliest forms of meddling and hegemony.”

The letter addressed some of the most important issues that have plagued Syrian–Lebanese relations for decades and pledged to end the special relationship that has heavily favored Syria since the conclusion of the Taif Accord that ended the Lebanese civil war in 1989. It did not, however, generate the response that the Syrian National Council was hoping for. The Lebanese response predictably followed the lines of Lebanese politics set by the March 8 Alliance and the March 14 Alliance, respectively named after the dates of pro- and anti-Syrian demonstrations that followed the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, blamed by some on Damascus.

The opposition March 14 Alliance—led by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, son of the slain former Premier Rafik Hariri and comprised of both Sunni and Christian elements—has reacted favorably to the council’s letter, calling it a “courageous step… that puts Lebanese–Syrian relations on the right political track.” The March 14 Alliance has also supported Syrian protestors’ calls for Assad to leave, though Saad Hariri’s Sunni Future Movement has carefully calibrated its opposition to Assad so as not to provoke retaliation should the regime survive.

However, while the Sunni elements of March 14 unequivocally support Assad’s ouster, their Christian allies are less certain about post-Assad Syria. Lebanon’s Maronite patriarch recently cited “transition” in Syria as a potential threat to Arab Christians across the region. He called for Assad to be given more leeway to implement reforms, sparking significant controversy within the Christian community.

The Role of Hezbollah

Hezbollah, on the other hand, maintains a key strategic alliance with Damascus, as its core interests lie in the Assad regime’s survival. Aside from the potential loss of a strategic ally, Hezbollah’s concerns over Syrian unrest also reflect the mounting threat to the organization’s credibility, both in Lebanon and the region. Increasingly, Hezbollah has been placed in the seemingly contradictory position of stridently supporting Arab uprisings elsewhere, but remaining conspicuously quiet on Syria. In recent speeches, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has tempered his support for the Syrian regime with tepid calls for reform and a peaceful resolution to the crisis. Nonetheless, Hezbollah’s double standard threatens real damage to its regional standing.

Hezbollah’s allies, including its Christian partners in the March 8 bloc, thus far share Hezbollah’s position on Syria. Indeed, Amal leader and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, has staked out an even tougher position than Hezbollah in support of Syria. Meanwhile, Hezbollah’s Christian allies—namely General Michel Aoun—reflect deepening disquiet within the Christian community over the potential threat to their Syrian co-religionists posed by a post-Assad Syria.

The conflict in Syria can inflame inter-communal tensions in Lebanon, visible almost daily in pro- and anti-Assad rallies throughout the country. That was recently highlighted when two people were killed in the northern city of Tripoli during clashes between Jabal Mohsen, a predominantly Alawite neighborhood like the regime in Damascus, and Bab al-Tabbaneh, one which is Sunni Muslim, like the majority of Syria’s protest movement.

Lebanon’s fate is deeply intertwined with Syria’s ultimate destiny, and Syria’s endgame will have a decisive impact on Lebanon, potentially reconfiguring the balance of power between the two countries and reshaping the Lebanese political arena. For now, the Lebanese army has been quick to take action to prevent incidents like the Tripoli clashes from escalating further, reflecting a widespread desire inside the country to ensure security and stability. But, as Michael Williams, a fellow at Chatham House and former U.N. Special Coordinator for Lebanon recently put it: “The situation in Syria is deteriorating all the time, and there’s no way that Lebanon can be immune from that.” If Lebanese politicians want to ensure long term stability in the country, they urgently need to reach a consensus on how to deal with the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition going forward.

Raymond Karam is a program assistant for EWI's Regional Security Initiative.