With the uprising in Syria continuing, many in Lebanon fear that unrest could spill over the border into their own country.
IWPR’s Middle East programme manager Susanne Fischer looks at how the continuing instability is affecting the Lebanese.
After six months of uprising in Syria, how does the unrest there influence the situation in Lebanon?
The most visible consequences are the refugees who are mainly concentrated near the northern border. On the Syrian side, the village of Talkalah, is only a few kilometres away and can actually be seen from Lebanon. At night, you can hear the shooting across the border, and occasionally stray bullets even injure people on the Lebanese side. The frontier here is not very well delineated so in some places it is hard to tell where Lebanon stops and Syria begins.
But of course the ongoing unrest also influences the general atmosphere in Lebanon, the public debate and the political climate. Many people are worried that an escalation of violence might eventually spill over into Lebanon or that Syria, in order to deflect attention from events at home, might be tempted to cause problems in Lebanon.
According to political analysts in the region, there are three unstable parts of Lebanon that could easily turn violent in the event of further escalation: the frontline between Israel and Hezbollah in the south of Lebanon; the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon; and the northern city of Tripoli, where clashes between the majority Sunni population and the Alawite minority – the faith group of Syria’s ruling Assad clan – have claimed lives before.
What is the position of the current Lebanese government on the revolution in Syria?
Since June, Prime Minister Najib Mikati has led a government formed by the so-called March 8 bloc – a coalition of Sunnis; the Christian party the Free Patriotic Movement of Michael Aoun; the Druze of Walid Jumblatt; and the Shia parties Amal and Hezbollah. In particular, Amal and Hezbollah usually take a pro-Syrian position. Recently, Nabih Berri, head of the Amal movement and speaker of the Lebanese parliament, claimed that the popular uprising in Syria was part of a “foreign conspiracy”, using the same vocabulary that President Bashar al-Assad used repeatedly in his speeches. According to him, Syria is being targeted because of its support for the resistance against Israel and for Hamas in Palestine.
The irony is that the same man praised the revolution in Libya. This can be partly explained by the fact that the Shia in Lebanon historically hate Gaddafi ever since the influential Shia cleric Imam Musa al-Sadr, founder of the Amal movement, went missing during a trip to Libya in 1978.
Mikati himself, although Sunni, also has close relations with the Syrian regime. When asked about his ties to Assad in an interview with Newsweek in August, Mikati said, “Yes, we were friends. Unfortunately, now he’s so busy. [I haven’t had] the chance to see him or even talk to him.”
Who are the major allies of Syria in Lebanon, and why?
The most important ally of Syria in Lebanon is without doubt Hezbollah. Syria has managed to position itself as a regional power by allying itself with Hezbollah in Lebanon and with the Iranian regime. Syria considers itself the centre of the axis of resistance against Israel.
And for Hezbollah, Syria is an important ally because is it the main gateway for any kind of supplies. Syria has been accused repeatedly of enabling weapon transports to Hezbollah across its borders.
So it is no surprise that Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Hezbollah, strongly defends Assad and his regime.
The Lebanese newspaper The Daily Star recently quoted him saying, “We must stand with Syria so that it will not make concessions…No one can accept reforms under pressure. We know that the Syrian leadership is serious about reforms.”
Assad’s pledges to introduce reforms appear to have little credibility given his denunciations of the protesters and brutal crackdown.
Politicians from the Christian parties, such as Aoun, also downplay the events in Syria. He provoked outrage among his political opponents when he called the situation in Syria “calm” with the exception of “minor incidents in a neighbourhood or two in Homs”.
Aoun claimed that the western pressure on Syria is mainly aimed at forcing it to break its ties with Hezbollah, Iran and Hamas.
What would a regime change in Syria mean for Lebanon and the political landscape there?
If the regime changed in Syria, the situation for Hezbollah in Lebanon would be become much more difficult. It is hard to predict what the exact consequences would be, because it also depends on the kind of government and political system that would be established in Syria – but it would definitely weaken Hezbollah´s position. Some fear that Israel might seize such an opportunity to try to finish off Hezbollah once and for all, which would lead to another war between Lebanon and Israel.
Many Christians in Lebanon are afraid that the Christian minority might not be safe in Syria anymore under a different government, meaning that many would flee to Lebanon. They also fear that a possible Sunni government across the border might strengthen the already strong Sunni political camp in Lebanon and further decrease the influence of the Christians.
Many Syrian activists are known to have continued their work from Beirut after being forced to leave Syria. Is Lebanon a safe haven for them?
No, not at all. Many are still working from Lebanon, but at the same time they say they do not feel safe at all. At a demonstration a few weeks ago in front of the Syrian embassy in Beirut, protesters were attacked by pro-Assad thugs and badly beaten; some even had to be treated in hospital. Other activists received death threats. One got a call from Syria in which he was told, “We will send Hezbollah after you.”
So far, nobody has any proof that Hezbollah would actually participate in such intimidation – but, if they don´t, then there are others. There have been repeated reports about the involvement of members or supporters of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, SSNP, in Lebanon, in harassing and beating people who speak out against Assad. Many activists have preferred to seek refuge in Turkey.