Two years of war in Syria and there is no end in sight. Announced dead on many occasions, the regime of Bashar al-Assad has demonstrated more staying power than expected. The swift regime changes that had taken place in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya led some to the wrong assumption that Assad would soon be history as well.
The forces opposed to Assad keep displaying an almost unbelievable disunity, considering the enormous task at their hands. Uncoordinated and fragmented into many fighting groups, the opposition can win battles, but cannot win the war. To win against a regime that fights with its back to the wall, Assad's foes would need an overarching strategy, both on the military and on the political front. Instead, they keep bombing here and striking there, while a political opposition body speaking with one voice has yet to be constituted.
The longer the war in Syria goes on, the more Lebanon is drawn in. Basically, Lebanon is a patchwork of different fabrics, stitched and held together by a vague notion of being superior to its Middle Eastern neighbors. However, in the spring of 2013, the patchwork of Lebanon is under severe stress, and the seams begin to burst.
On the one hand, the Lebanese anti and pro Assad camps emulate the events in Syria on a local stage, most visible in Lebanon's northern city Tripoli. Last week's clashes between the various factions have again caused victims on both sides of the front line. In Beirut and Southern Lebanon, Syria is on everybody's mind as well: Hezbollah sends their fighters to Syria in order to support Assad on the battle field; Lebanese President Suleiman orders the army to stop all armed men en route to Syria; and Prime Minister Mikati resigns after disputes related to Syria within his government, leaving Lebanon head over heels once again.
On the other hand, Syrian opposition forces use Lebanon as their retreat area, where they train, regroup and collect their breath. The Syrian presence in Lebanon today reminds him of the situation in Lebanon some 40 years ago, says Daoud, a reporter and media expert from Beirut, to whom I talk via Twitter and email. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) used Lebanon as their base of operations to fight Israel. The Lebanese state was too weak and too divided to keep the actions of the Palestinians and the Israelis on Lebanese soil under control.
The consequences were disastrous: Lebanon blew up in a civil war in 1975, Israel occupied parts of Lebanon until the year 2000, and Syria was invited to come to the rescue of some parties of the Lebanese civil war. Syrian troops would only leave Lebanon in 2005, after the assassination of Lebanon's Prime Minister Rafic Hariri and the ensuing so called Cedar Revolution.
Could the same scenario play out today? Could Lebanon again be host and hostage to foreign forces? With a powerful Lebanese state still being an illusion, the conditions for a strong foreign influence in the country remain in place.
Marie-Joëlle Zahar argues in Lebanon – after the Cedar Revolution that “when the state fails to credibly protect sub-national communities, these communities have two options to acquire the means to defend themselves against perceived threats: build up their military strength or enter into alliance with stronger powers that can protect them.”
With Hezbollah heavily armed and aligned with Iran; with Sunni movements supported and guided by Saudi Arabia and Qatar – and with many other groups having similar arrangements – both options are a fact and a factor in Lebanon: yesterday, today and tomorrow.
However, herein lies one of the problems of Lebanon: when potent protectors of Lebanese factions come under pressure on their home turf, as is the case with Syria and Iran, the consequences are felt within the Lebanese system.
With the perennial clashes between the Alawite neighborhood of Jabal Mohsen and the Sunni neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbeneh, the bad news from Tripoli keep coming.
“Tripoli today is not the same Tripoli that it was one month ago, and certainly not the Tripoli that it was three years ago.” Hanna, who hails from Tripoli, but now spends his week working in Beirut, is straightforward in his assessment.
“Huge ideological changes have turned Tripoli into a more Islamic city. It quite feels like Tripoli is not in Lebanon anymore”, he goes on. “Fighters belonging to the Free Syrian Army keep coming in and youngsters from Tripoli are leaving the city to fight against the regime in Syria.”
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Is anyone trying the stop the downfall of Tripoli? No, says Hanna, and blames the Tripolitan society for remaining silent on everything that happens to their city. Gunmen wandering the streets, Salafists becoming decision makers in Tripoli: the city breaks down violently, the population suffers silently.
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Hezbollah was undoubtedly the strongest party in Lebanon in the past decade, having thick ties to Assad in Syria and the Mullahs in Iran. In its modus operandi, Hezbollah behaves like a heavyweight boxing champion on an off day. Hezbollah doesn't hit first, but is ready to react decisively to any provocation coming their way.
But more and more, the Hezbollah monopoly on weapons is challenged. Groups from the Sunni side of the Lebanese spectrum have also started to arm themselves, explains Daoud, in anticipation of things to happen. This mutual arming may lead to mutual deterrence. However, it may also lead to violent skirmishes, even to a destructive war. Events in Syria can spark many matches in Lebanon.
Is there a battle between Hezbollah and Jabhat al-Nusra (the Jihadist group very active in Syria) looming on the horizon? “Not so fast”, Amani tells me, “this will only happen with the Nusra Front starting the fight”. She is from South Lebanon; “resistance is my religion” is her Twitter account's motto. “And maybe”, Amani carries on, “Hezbollah wouldn't even take up the fight against the Nusra Front, but rather would have the Lebanese army facing them.” However to some people in Lebanon, the distinction between Hezbollah and the Lebanese army is only a theory.
Syria's future is not in Syrian hands anymore. For Ziad, a regular contributor for Your Middle East from Beirut, the geopolitical dimension of the Syrian conflict is obvious. “Think of the situation in Syria as a tug of war between many different blocs, with many different goals, performed in the Syrian theater”, he says. “This is called the international game of geopolitical chess, and Syria and Lebanon are only pawns in this game.”
Indeed! “Syria” has a multitude of dimensions. And many of them are circling around Iran. It is the USA vs. Iran and the proxy war to stop Tehran's nuclear program; it is Saudi Arabia vs. Iran and the war for supremacy in the Muslim world; and it is a revenge for Iraq which the USA had occupied ten years ago but Iran has won in the meantime. Now, it is time to stop Iran in Syria. The struggle of the Syrian people for democracy and a life without an oppressive regime has been reduced to a mere side note in a country pushed and shoved by foreign interests.
Lebanese sometimes tell the following story: When God created the mountains, the plains and the rivers of Lebanon, the desert countries became envious. God then said that he would allocate two neighbors to Lebanon which will make the life of the Lebanese miserable. And so it happened: Lebanon became the stage of conflicts of third parties.
Lebanese like to portray their country in this way. Lebanese like to see themselves as victims of evil forces envious of their beautiful country. They like to fade out their part in the story. In Lebanon, the central state, the main barrier to personal freedom in the Middle East, is deliberately kept weak. But this freedom comes with a price.
“Before the 1975 civil war”, writes Marie-Joëlle Zahar, “the Lebanese state was perceived as unable to deter and now is increasingly perceived as unable or unwilling to assure. The difference is significant in that the state is now seen as a direct threat to some of its citizens.” This does not bode well for stability in Lebanon. With or without Syria.
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