It is a tragic reality that the bloodshed in Syria seems unable to reach its climax, as every day a new offensive brings more images of bodies, more stories of decimated families and more fear of what is to come. Russia and China’s persistent support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad continues to compound this problem and we in the West have appeared to take on the largely passive role; the powerless witness in a national catastrophe.
Yet from our vantage point over three thousand miles away, it is quite difficult to grasp in its entirety the regional impact that this crisis is having. From the foothills of Mount Lebanon, the conflict in Syria looks quite different from our simplified, categorised view back home. When seen from this perspective, the conflict in Syria is not merely a particularly violent extension of the so-called “Arab Spring” of democracy; it is a conflict emerging from decades of regional violence, with long term implications for the political landscape.
Syria and Lebanon have had a distinctly long and conflictual relationship with one another. After being asked to deploy troops in Lebanon during the Civil War (1975-1990), Hafez al-Assad’s Syria maintained a de-facto occupation until the assassination of Rafic Hariri in 2005 which triggered the Cedar Revolution. Syria upheld this power through a combination of military intimidation, political bargaining and strategic assassination, marking a dark post-war shadow across Lebanon’s history. However, even without direct control, Lebanon remains chained to Syria through the influence of Syrian diplomacy on Lebanon’s Shi’ite political parties; most significantly Hezbollah and Haraket Amal. Both Hezbollah and Amal’s confessional ties with the Alawite (a branch of Shia Islam) Syrian regime have maintained a flow of political, financial and para-military assistance from Syria, thus perpetuating tensions between the two nations.
It is because of this history that we must try to see the conflict not in terms of an insular revolution, but a regional political crisis. As of the 25th of July, 47,000 Syrian refugees have poured across the border, with 18,000 crossing in just two days. With the extant crisis of the Palestinian Refugee Issue, Lebanon is poorly equipped to support such an exodus but has requested UN assistance and tried to open schools and other institutions as temporary accommodation. In addition to this, several Lebanese citizens have been killed by errant Syrian artillery fire, most notably in the northern region of Wadi Khaled. These issues may be small-fry in comparison to atrocious human rights violations being committed by both sides in the revolution across the border, but they undoubtedly raise the question of what the Syrian conflict means for the long term political scenario in the small, beautiful land that is Lebanon.
Politically, Syria is pushing Lebanon toward a new era of inter-confessional tensions, the exact consequences of which will be difficult to predict. The National Dialogue between the various political parties of Lebanon’s two main coalitions, the ruling March 8th and the opposition March 14th Alliances, has been the first casualty of this process, which is essential in Lebanon’s highly cosmopolitan model of democracy. According to the Lebanese broadsheet the Daily Star, the largely anti-Syrian March 14th Alliance has sought to capitalise on the likely removal of Assad’s Alawite regime by stalling the National Dialogue until Hezbollah and Amal can no longer rely on the political backing of the Syrian Government. Such an act will likely drive accusations of ‘politicking’ amongst Lebanon’s largely Maronite and Sunni political right, and refresh anxieties over the reality of political rapprochement in the wake of the Civil War.
In the long term, the potential resurgence of the anti-Syrian March 14th Alliance could have dramatic implications. The revival of Maronite political power since its curtailment under the Taif Agreement would certainly raise concerns amongst both the political left and the Shia community, whilst any shift in the balance of power will ultimately stifle political progress under the delicately balanced National Pact.
In tandem, inter-confessional frictions in Lebanese society seemed to have worsened since the start of the conflict. The harrowing scenes of Damascus, Homs and now Aleppo deeply resonate with the Lebanese people and will likely fuel resentment towards the Shia population. Despite considerable success since the Civil War, the underlying distrust undoubtedly still exists; I was advised on more than one occasion to not go to a particular district of Beirut because “you won’t like it, it’s mostly Shia”. The undeniable association between Lebanon’s ruling March 8th Alliance and their Syrian allies cannot be easily ignored, so political aggression quickly leads to inter-confessional hostility.
Moreover, Lebanon’s people seem to doubt that this conflict will resolve as easily as the rebels would like to claim. A young Christian from Broumana told me, “The rebels say it will be over by the end of Ramadan, but I don’t believe it…it will be another year”. This combination of pessimism and fear is certainly not welcome in a period identified with the slowing down of progress initiated under Prime Minister Siniora’s 2005 reforms.
As if shifting political power and social tension were not enough, Lebanon must face the issue of what increasingly appears to be a longer-term refugee problem from a diminished economic position. Saddled with a public debt in excess of $55 million and unable to provide essential infrastructure to all its people, Lebanon simply cannot afford to take the burden of an additional refugee population.
UNRWA’s budget for the Palestinian refugees is already insufficient at best, so until international support can be found Lebanon will be subject to either economic or humanitarian turmoil; perhaps even both. This is an issue that must be faced by the international community, who have allowed international aid to dwindle in recent years despite the ever increasing burdens of refugee populations in the region.
As such, it would be wise for us in “the West” to take note and pay attention to the regional developments beyond Syria’s borders. Of course, the first priority is, and must remain, the end to the unnecessary bloodshed in Syria, which may mean raising questions over the legitimacy of the UN Security Council’s decisions. However, it will be necessary to keep an eye on the web of relations that spread from Syria, not just to Lebanon but to the entire region. Monumental shifts in power do not occur without consequences and we must be prepared for them.