Is Lebanon next? The threat of a Syrian conflict spillover

By Lorena Fortuno

Last month, Wissam al-Hassan, a senior Lebanese security official who had worked to counter Syrian influence in Lebanon, was killed in a large explosion in one of Beirut’s Christian neighbourhoods.

The murder of Al Hassan was highly significant as he was one of the main investigators of the car bomb explosion that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005 in which Hezbollah and the Syrian regime may have been involved. He was also the leader of the investigation that led to the arrest of the former Lebanese Information Minister, Michel Samaha, accused of planning attacks against Sunni objectives and of pursuing Syrian interests in Lebanon.

This episode, the first of its type since 2008, immediately created tensions in an already severely fragmented country, as it was considered by some a Syrian-backed attack aimed to spread the sectarian and political violence of the Syrian conflict into Lebanon and exacerbate tensions between Shiite and Alawites in favour of the Syrian regime, and Sunni factions that support Syrian rebels.

Proof of this mounting tension can be found in the numerous recent clashes between pro-Syrian and anti-Syrian groups in Tripoli, the country’s second largest city, where the army is also fragile because of its sectarian composition and has been obliged to intervene in an effort to restore order.

On the other hand, the events of this last week have also exposed the fragility of the current Lebanese government and its institutions, starting with Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s resignation attempt, and an army that’s struggling to put sectarian divisions aside to act in the greater Lebanese interest.

For the moment it is not possible to know who was behind Friday’s blast, but this event has certainly highlighted the risk that the Syrian conflict could widen to other Middle Eastern states.

Lebanon, as Fawas Gerges says, is the most vulnerable of all of Syria’s neighbours. It has the most intimate links with Syria. For the Lebanese, the escalation of the Syrian crisis is not only reverberating on the Lebanese street, it’s also paralyzing institutions, deepening and widening existing cleavages and making a conflict spillover an imminent possibility.

But, is a spillover scenario really viable in Lebanon? Even though Syrian politics and events have proved to be crucial and even determinant to Lebanon in the past, Lebanese society and Lebanese politics seem to be, as David Enders writes, stable in its instability, at least for the time being.

Lebanese stability has always been vulnerable to religious groups’ dynamics since the end of the Lebanese Civil War. These dynamics have changed from a mainly inter-religious confrontation between Catholics and Muslims to an intra-religious one between different Muslim factions who get support from different States: Sunnis represented by the anti-Syrian March 14 Group, who are mainly supported by Saudi Arabia and Qatar and Shiites represented by the pro-Syrian March 8 Alliance, including Hezbollah and also Alawite factions, who are supported by Iran at the regional level.

Christian political groups on the other hand divide their support between the two Muslim groups but mainly find themselves in a stalemate as they they have to deal with the Sunni and Shiite intervention in the Syrian conflict, political internal tensions and regional influences acting on Lebanese politics.

The possibility of a face-to-face encounter between the Hezbollah dominated group and the March 14 forces would without a doubt facilitate conflict spillover into Lebanon and in a sense would be as Frédéric Charillon wrote, a reproduction/extension of the Syrian process. Nonetheless the possibilities of these politically fuelled confrontations, like the ones taking place in Tripoli and Beirut for the last few days, of increasing into a large scale civil war conflict are if not remote, limited.

First of all, none of the coalitions in Lebanon has started a campaign to alter the internal balance of power to favour their position on the Syrian conflict, especially after murder of Al Hassan that might have provided some momentum. Instead, Lebanese high-ranking army officials, who are mainly Sunni, asked the different political groups to keep calm after the incident in the name of national interest and in order to keep the steady but highly sensitive equilibrium between factions.

Moreover, Hezbollah, now one of the most powerful political parties in Lebanon, is finally beginning to consolidate its internal power in the country and this process would be compromised if civil war were to be unleashed. Even when Hezbollah is supporting the Syrian regime and has intervened directly in the fighting, they have been doing so cautiously in order to protect their stakes.

Economic interests of the Lebanese political elites, as Jesus A. Nuñez Villaverde remarks,  also play a part in peacekeeping as they are directly involved in the housing, reconstruction and luxury tourism business that has been growing in Lebanon since the Israeli retreat in 2000.

Finally, clashes between factions have been sporadic and isolated, and they are likely to remain so, partly due to Lebanese demographics. As David Enders points out, there are not many places in Lebanon where Sunni and Shiite factions live closely together as they do in Tripoli or Beirut, this makes conflict outbreaks less likely and easier to control.

In conclusion, it is undeniable that both pro-and anti-Syrian factions are already deeply enmeshed in their neighbour’s conflict. However, even if some Lebanese are actively supporting the opposition or the regime, Lebanon can’t afford another armed conflict or the formation of what Catherine Ashton described as a “political vacuum,” as the cost would be too high for all Lebanese stakeholders.

For the moment, a violent spillover in Lebanon is unlikely but not impossible; it will all depend on how the situation in Syria keeps evolving and on the will of political factions in Lebanon in maintaining their current balance of power and thus protecting their interests.

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