Lebanon: Close To Breaking Point

Placed dangerously between Syria and Israel, exposure to conflict and overspill from refugees is causing big problems in Lebanon.
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Placed dangerously between Syria and Israel, exposure to conflict and overspill from refugees is causing big problems in Lebanon.

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Sheffield synth-pop superstars The Human League once won a worst lyrics award for their 1984 hit “The Lebanon”, a somewhat unfair distinction for a song expressing sympathy for the suffering of the Lebanese people during the 1975-1990 civil war. Sadly, it may be time for Phil Oakey and friends to get back in the studio because the overspill from the conflict in Syria is perilously close to provoking renewed conflict in Lebanon.

The country has suffered horrendously from sectarian strife for decades. Many of its problems stem from its status as a microcosm of Middle Eastern diversity, with a multitude of different cultural and religious communities co-existing in one small country. Its political system is based on a delicate balancing act that distributes power between its biggest communities, the Maronite Christians, the Druze, the Sunni and the Shia Muslims.

Worse still, Lebanon sits trapped between two hostile neighbours. Despite the end of the civil war over two decades ago, Lebanon has continually been subjected to violent interference in its affairs by Israel and Syria’s once strong and still ruthless Assad regime. Now, peace in Lebanon seems to be even more threatened by the weakness of its erstwhile Syrian tormentor.

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The first pressure placed on Lebanon by the Syrian conflict was the arrival in the country of over one million Syrians fleeing the fighting in their homeland. As detailed in a recent report by the International Crisis Group (“Too Close for Comfort: Syrians in Lebanon”), the massive influx of Syrians is putting the country’s fragile public services and economy under great strain. The bare figures are enough to show the scale of the problem – one million Syrians is equal to 25% of the Lebanese population of four million and can be added to the 400,000 plus Palestinian refugees who are already resident in the country. Such statistics should provide some perspective to those in the UK who bang on about Britain having too many asylum seekers. As Crocodile Dundee might have put it, “that’s not a refugee problem, THAT’s a refugee problem.”

Even more dangerously, the influx of Syrians, the overwhelming majority of whom are anti-Assad Sunnis, is inadvertently inflaming Lebanon’s pre-existing inter-communal tensions. The historically powerful but increasingly demographically outnumbered Christians are worried about being marginalised and preparing to protect themselves. Their concerns are shared by Lebanon’s Shia population, a large and growing, but traditionally downtrodden, segment of society. The Shias have become increasingly influential and assertive over recent years. They fear that their political gains may be extinguished by the arrival of so many of their Sunni rivals, particularly as the Shia-Sunni split in the Arab world has become more pronounced since the Iraq war and the Arab Spring.

The Shias’ fears are part of what is driving the biggest threat to Lebanon arising from the Syrian conflict - the role of Hizbollah, the hardline movement that is largely responsible for increasing the power of the Lebanese Shia community. Hizbollah achieved this by creating its own “state within a state” and remaining heavily armed long after the end of the civil war. Its relationships with the main Sunni political parties are tense and adversarial to say the least. Nonetheless, Hizbollah gained a large amount of at least grudging respect from many non-Shia Lebanese and some acceptance of its claim to be a “national resistance movement” when it fought the mighty Israeli army to a stalemate in 2006.

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Much of this respect and acceptance has been destroyed by Hizbollah’s open involvement in the Syrian conflict over the last few months. The conflict has presented Hizbollah with a huge dilemma. Despite its “national resistance movement” rhetoric, Hizbollah was created by Iran, the largest Shia-dominated nation, to exercise influence on its behalf in the Levant region. It remains totally dependent on the Islamic Republic and, in turn, Iran’s Assad regime allies, who channel funding and weapons to it.

Hizbollah’s dependency led it to decide to join the conflict in Syria on the side of Assad. Initially, it was involved in covert activities such as training the Shabiha militias that have become notorious for committing atrocities against Syria’s Sunni civilians. But Hizbollah has now become overtly involved by sending large numbers of its fighters to support the Syrian regime, notably in the recent battle for the strategic town of Qusayr. This fully-fledged engagement has made clear that Hizbollah’s first loyalty is to Iran, the Syrian government and militant Shiism, rather than the Lebanese nation.

Hizbollah’s actions are likely to provoke attacks on it in Lebanon by Sunni militias who support the uprising in Syria. There have already been a few rockets fired into Hizbollah’s stronghold in South Beirut and several skirmishes. These could easily lead to a tit-for-tat escalation and full-blown civil war that would bring more death and destruction to all of Lebanon’s communities.

To prevent that nightmare scenario from coming to pass, the outside world needs to provide urgent assistance to alleviate Lebanon’s refugee crisis. The international community should also encourage the leaders of the country’s various factions to ask themselves “And who will have won/When the soldiers are gone/From the Lebanon?”