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Lebanon, like a number of small nations buffeted by greater powers, has always sought and failed to carve out space for its own politics, free from the overweening influence of its self-appointed friends and protectors.
In this tradition, Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati has over the past 18 months articulated a policy of 'disassociation'. As he puts it, 'we decided to stay away from the Syrian crisis'. But things have not proven so simple.
Lebanon unavoidably sits in Syria's shadow. First, it represents a rear area for the conflict. According to the UN's refugee agency, more than 100,000 Syrians have already fled westwards. This includes 7,500 Palestinians who had been refugees in Syria, and find themselves forced to flee once more. In northern Lebanon, an area that had found itself at the sharp end of the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, the Syrian rebels – principally grouped under the loose organisational banner of the Free Syria Army – have found safe havens and arms, abetted by Islamic, diaspora and tribal connections.
Beyond this first-order spillover, Lebanon is also a microcosm of wider sectarian and strategic rivalries. Its own fissures and conflicts mirror those seen next door in Syria, and more broadly in the region. Iran and Saudi Arabia jostle for influence, each usually backing favoured Shia and Sunni clients respectively.
Although the allegiances do not overlap precisely, these sectarian divisions also correspond to pro- and anti-Syrian divisions. For example, the opposition Saudi-backed 'March 14' coalition tends to oppose Syrian influence in Lebanon, and the governing Hizbullah-dominated, Iran-backed 'March 8' coalition is close to Syria. Okab Sakr, a key Lebanese politician affiliated with the former anti-Syria coalition, is alleged to be one of Saudi Arabia's points of liaison with the Free Syrian Army and, in that capacity, a key distributor of arms. In turn, pro-Syrian groups - above all, the Iranian-backed Hizbullah, are alleged to be providing increasing assistance to President Bashar al-Assad's crackdown against the Free Syrian Army and other rebels.
This complex web of allegiances, in combination with the weakness of the Lebanese state, is what makes Lebanon perhaps the most vulnerable of all of Syria's neighbours, more so even than both Jordan and Iraq. Some of the worst skirmishes occurred as early as May, with surprisingly intense street battles in both Beirut and the northern city of Tripoli. A series of incidents - including the kidnapping of Syrians inside Lebanon, and arrests by the Hizbullah-dominated security forces - have induced a series of such tit-for-tat cycles of violence. Tripoli is especially combustible, as pro- and anti-Assad neighbourhoods are adjacent to one another.
The Assassination of Wissam al-Hassan: Echoes of 2005
This context explains why the 19 October assassination of Wissam al-Hassan, a top Lebanese intelligence official, was so explosive. Hassan was close to Sunni groups in Lebanon. He was seen as supportive of the anti-Assad rebels, and had played a role in uncovering alleged Syrian plots to conduct bombings across Lebanon. Hassan had also participated in the investigation which blamed Syria for the 2005 killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a pivotal moment in Lebanon's political trajectory.
The anger of Lebanon's Sunni opposition is in fact an echo – if a muted one – of their response to that assassination. Hariri's killing that year triggered a popular movement sometimes called the Cedar Revolution. Sunni and Druze parties came together, joined by some Christian and other factions, and, with the help of intense international pressure on Damascus, forced Syria to withdraw its forces from Lebanon. That ended 30 years of occupation.
But, over the last few years, pro-Syrian forces have been on the ascendancy. Hizbullah, which emerged from its 2006 war against Israel with prestige and self-confidence, outmuscled Sunni rivals on the streets of Beirut in 2008, and then cemented its position in 2011 by toppling the Saudi-backed 'March 14' coalition then in government, and stacking the new administration, the one ruling today, with its members and allies.
Under these circumstances, Lebanon cannot meaningfully 'disassociate' itself from Syria. Its own political players are themselves irredeemably tied, to varying degrees, to regional forces with their own interests. This has always been true, but the unfolding civil war in Syria has sharpened Sunni grievances and created a new climate of uncertainty for all sides.
Can the Lebanese State Without the Strain?
The danger now is that Lebanon's state, always a tenuously negotiated compromise, falls apart under this strain. Some Sunni factions want to bring down the government. The United States, mindful of encouraging a power vacuum, initially backed Prime Minister Najib Mikati (who himself offered to resign), but has since signalled that it supports a change in government, in order to weaken Iranian influence in Lebanon. If this international support for a change in government grows, then Sunni groups could see an opportunity to increase pressure on the government. But, since the killing of Rafik Hariri, these factions have lacked leadership. As one Sunni resident of Beirut told the writer Mitchell Prothero in May, "the Shiites have [Hizbullah leader] Nasrallah ... we have a poster of a dead man".
More importantly than this, the leaderships of each major Lebanese alliance have struck more cautious notes in the days since Hassan's assassination. The anti-Syrian and pro-Saudi factions understand the weakness of their position on the ground, and would probably prefer to eke out smaller concessions that push for radical change. Hizbullah, for its part, is certainly not eager to tear apart a state in which it holds such a strong position. Moreover, Hezbollah understands that its support for the Assad regime has wrought damage to cross-sectarian popularity. In early October, the former Hizbullah leader Sheikh Sobhi Tfaili, addressing the Lebanese Shia leadership, said: 'I demand they reconsider their relationship with the government – don't join in what is going on in Syria. It is a massive crime against the Syrian people'.
But Hizbullah is unlikely to radically change its stance, at least while the regime in Damascus still commands the loyalty of most of its armed forces and looks to have some strength left in it. After all, almost all Lebanese Shia (96%) have a favorable view of Assad. Pressure on the Lebanese government is therefore likely to grow over time. If violence once more becomes seen as the only way to redress these grievances against the government, then Hizbullah, already insecure about the prospective loss of its ally in Damascus, would not simply surrender – and the army might well have to choose between standing aside and falling apart in the face of a superior military adversary.
Lebanon's security agencies are themselves divided. The Internal Security Forces, whose intelligence branch was led by the slain Hassan, is perceived to be pro-Sunni and anti-Assad, whereas the General Security Directorate is close to Hizbullah. To be sure, in recent days the Lebanese army has proven more assertive than in the past in keeping a lid on violence, but if skirmishes escalated to higher levels then it would struggle to stamp its authority. The army received over $720 million in American military aid between 2006 and 2010, but probably remains weaker than Hizbullah, an efficient and adaptive military organisation. In 2008, the Lebanese army shrunk from intervening in street battles, partly for fear that it would, as during the Lebanese Civil War, fracture along sectarian lines.
Lebanese political leaders have called for calm, but the country's elite politics is at risk of becoming detached from the street. This is particularly likely if such provocations as Hassan's assassination recur or more Syrian plots in Lebanon come to light. Even if protests ebb away in the days ahead, as now seems likely, Lebanon's fragile political system will remain vulnerable to Syrian spillover, a state of affairs that will continue even after the fall of the Assad regime.