Syria uprising spills over into Lebanon

Divisions are emerging in Lebanon with loyalties split between support of Al-Assad and the rebels. As violence erupts on to the street, the coalition government is coming under pressure. Published in MEED, 1 June 2012

On 13 June, it will be a year since Najib Mikati, Lebanon’s prime minister took office. That is nine months longer than his first term in the job, in 2005, but whether there will be much to celebrate is another matter.

His coalition government is widely seen as ineffectual, with the cabinet unable to agree on a budget or bring in much-needed reforms and investment in the electricity sector. Perhaps the only thing keeping it going is the absence of any obvious alternative. Even so, there are many who question whether Mikati’s administration will be able to survive until parliamentary elections due in May next year.

As with much else in Lebanon these days, his cabinet – which took five months to piece together in the first half of 2011 – is suffering from divisions over what is happening in neighbouring Syria. Although all the groups within the coalition nominally back the Syrian regime, some are wary of being too closely associated with it at the moment. Those differences are feeding into other areas of policy-making, creating gridlock at the heart of the government.

Paralysed leadership

“The government is paralysed and is coming to the end of its life,” says Nadim Shehadi, associate fellow at London-based think-tank Chatham House. “It would be a miracle if it survives until the elections next summer. Everything is being politicised. On the surface, it is a dispute over the budget and the electricity proposals, but at the heart of it they are split over Syria. In crises such as these, the real points of difference are never mentioned.”

More worryingly, divisions over Syria are also spilling out of the political arena and on to the street. In recent weeks, there have been a series of clashes in Lebanon’s largest cities, as groups that support or oppose the regime of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad try to settle their differences with bullets and rocket-propelled grenades.

The most serious clashes to date broke out in Lebanon’s second city of Tripoli on 12 May, apparently sparked by the arrest of an Islamist critic of Al-Assad, Shadi Mawlawi, earlier that day on charges of having ties to terrorist groups.

The three days of fighting that followed cost the lives of 11 people and only came to a halt when the Lebanese army set up roadblocks and began patrols in the districts of Jabal Mohsen, Bab el-Tebbaneh and Syria Street. Less than a week later, on the night of 20 May and the early hours of 21 May, fighting briefly flared up in the Beirut district of Tariq al-Jadideh, leaving three dead and injuring 15 others.

Lebanese society is a complex and fragile tapestry of groups at the best of times, and such incidents act as powerful reminders of the violence that has sometimes broken out between these factions in the past.

“It gives you an [indication] that things could disintegrate further and that events in Tripoli could spread to other parts of Lebanon,” says Ibrahim Saif, senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut.

The death toll in Lebanon remains small compared with what is happening in Syria itself, but it is mounting nonetheless and the critical issue for the country is whether the violence can be contained, or if it will escalate into something more bloody. If the situation in Syria continues to degenerate, then the political scene in Lebanon is liable to become even more polarised and the risks of conflict will rise.

For now at least, most observers say Lebanon should be able to keep things under control – if only because, having witnessed so many bombings and assassinations of political and military leaders in recent years, the country has built up a certain degree of resilience.

Civil war in Lebanon

“The $1m question is whether there will be spill-over from Syria and Lebanon will collapse into civil war,” says Shehadi. “The one-word answer in my view is no. Say you have a barn full of very dry hay; [there is a danger] any little spark will flare it up. Lebanon is such a barn and there have been so many sparks thrown at it, even torches and gasoline poured over it, yet nothing has happened. There have been enough tests in the past five years to show a civil war is out of the question in Lebanon.”

The problem for Mikati and other political leaders is that the situation is, in many ways, out of Beirut’s hands. Among the few measures it has been able to take are efforts to stop the flow of arms and fighters across its 375-kilometre border with Syria.

On 28 April, for example, the Lebanese armed forces announced they had intercepted the Sierra Leone-flagged ship Letfallah II off the coast. According to a statement from the Army Command, it seized three containers with “a large quantity of weapons in addition to light, medium and heavy ammunition, as well as different military equipment”.

Reports at the time suggested these arms were destined for rebel groups in Syria and for every gun or bullet that is seized, many more are likely to slip through the net. The efforts of the Beirut authorities in this area will be fitfully successful at best.

“The borders are pretty porous,” says Karim Makdisi, associate professor of political studies at the American University of Beirut. “The Lebanon-Syria border has been open for centuries. The idea that anyone has the ability to control the borders in either direction has always been unrealistic.”

Terrorist accusations

Even so, Damascus seems to feel that Beirut is not doing enough to police the frontier and has openly accused Lebanon of providing a base for rebel groups. According to local media reports, Bashar Jaafari, Syria’s ambassador to the UN, sent a letter to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in May, accusing Beirut of harbouring terrorists from Al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood, and of enabling them to transport arms from Lebanese ports to Syria.

The unspoken threat is that the Syrian army could itself decide to cross the border and set up a presence in Lebanon for the first time since it withdrew the last of its troops in 2005. Indeed, during the fighting in Tripoli in May, one Lebanese politician, Rifaat Eid, called for the Syrian army to come and restore order in the Lebanese city.

“If we go to the unknown, no one will be able to calm things in Lebanon, unless an Arab army intervenes; no one has the capability to do so except Syria,” Eid told a press conference on 16 May, according to remarks reported by Lebanon’s official National News Agency. “I do not mind it at all … let it be today before tomorrow.”

Such a call was perhaps not surprising given that Eid is head of the Arab Democratic Party, which draws support from Lebanon’s Alawite community, the same confessional group that Al-Assad comes from in Syria.

Eid’s comments were dismissed by Foreign Affairs Minister Adnan Mansour and Justice Minister Shakib Qortbawi, among others. A day after Eid’s remarks, Qortbawi told the Voice of Lebanon radio station that “there will be no return for any foreign army to Lebanon; the Lebanese Army alone can protect Lebanon and its people”.

There is a chance, however, that the Syrian army could decide to enter Lebanon anyway, whether by invitation or not, particularly if it feels it is gaining the upper hand over its opponents within Syria.

“It’s not outside the realms of the possible,” says Makdisi. “If the Syrian regime … thinks it is winning the battle inside Syria and the northern part of Lebanon is a de facto base for outside forces to mobilise, train and infiltrate, then I wouldn’t put it past the Syrian army to do that.”

In the meantime, the best option for the Beirut authorities is probably to aim for studied neutrality when it comes to the Syrian crisis, if only to ensure they do not further enflame the domestic situation. The government has followed this path when it comes to UN votes on Syria, tending to abstain in the Security Council and General Assembly rather than vote for or against resolutions condemning Al-Assad’s regime. Within the country, however, there is less appetite for such restraint.

“Lebanon has to be neutral in this, but instead the political class has imported this into the media and on to the TV screens,” says one Beirut observer. “One side is defending the regime; the other is defending the rebels. It hasn’t helped. It has raised the political rhetoric. There is little that Lebanon can do to influence what is happening there, so it would be better if the politicians stopped shouting at each other.”

Proportional vote in Lebanon

In addition to the Syrian crisis, Lebanon still has some pressing domestic political issues to grapple with, although they tend to be overshadowed by events next door.

One issue that could yet fundamentally change the nature of Lebanese politics is a new Electoral Law, currently being debated. If this goes ahead it could bring in a new, proportional voting system in time for next year’s parliamentary elections. This would lead to the formation of governments with a wider support base and a greater mandate for reforms. That is likely to be in the long-term interests of the country, but it may not overcome the hurdle of the short-term interests of its politicians.

“There are several different versions on the table now and it’s moving increasingly towards a consensus that there should be some form of proportional representation,” says Makdisi. “But, of course, that harms some people’s interests and those people are fighting it tooth and nail. If there’s no agreement, then they’ll go with the law they had last time, in which case you’re going to end up with more or less the same types of people [in power].”