Lebanon, a small country with incredibly diverse population, had been long influenced heavily by the neighbouring Syria. With the advent of the Syrian civil war the regional balance of forces changed dramatically, bringing with itself new challenges and threats. To discuss these issues, we`ve talked to Hilal Khashan, a prominent scholar on the Middle East, Professor of Political Studies and department chair at the American University of Beirut, and Tamirace Fakhoury, Assistant Professor in Political Sciences and International Affairs and Associate Director of the Institute of Social Justice and Conflict Resolution, Lebanese American University. 

 

Interviewer: Rusif Huseynov

 

Huseynov: Lebanese political factions are divided in their attitude towards Syrian belligerents. How much does lack of consolidated attitude and policy towards Syrian civil war affect Lebanon?

Khashan: True, the Lebanese are divided on Syria, yet each Lebanese faction has a foreign patron. These patrons are in agreement that the Syrian armed conflict must not spill into Lebanon. Causing the security situation in Lebanon to go out of control would not have an impact on the situation on Syria, nor on the countries of the region. In view of this reality the countries of the region, with the support of the U.S and Russia, have agreed to spare Lebanon the vagaries of the Syrian conflict. In the meantime, the Lebanese factions continue to disagree on the course of the Syrian conflict without jeopardizing Lebanon’s stability. With or without the Syrian conflict, the situation in Lebanon will remain tense because of its fractured political system that does not lend itself to fixing. Political instability is a way of life in Lebanon.

Fakhoury: Generally speaking, Lebanon has been divided between two political coalitions that have maintained competing perceptions of Syria’s post-2011 conflict: the March 14 and the March 8 Alliances. While the March 14 Alliance, a Sunni-led alliance, has at the outset saluted Syria’s uprising and perceived the rise of a political opposition in 2011 as a ‘democratic development’, the March 8 Alliance, led by Hezbollah (Syria’s ally) has warned of the negative consequences that the fall of Syria’s regime could have on the region and has pictured Syria’s uprising as a contrived and externally-induced initiative. Lebanon’s Maronite Church, has been cautious as to encouraging dissent in Syria, fearing that the latter could bring instability to Lebanon and threaten the Christian community in a context of Islamist radicalization. The picture is however not as simple as we imagine. Throughout the later stages of Syria’s war and its descent into a lethal conflict, all Lebanese actors have warned of the potential insecurity spillovers that Lebanon would incur from such a conflict. 

Divisions over Syria’s war in Lebanon have not remained discursive. They have for instance led to militarized confrontations in the Northern town of Tripoli in 2013, pitting the pro-Syrian Alawi community against the anti-Syrian Sunni community. In 2013, Hezbollah formally announced its military participation in Syria to back the Syrian regime. This has provoked tensions between Lebanon’s Shia and Sunni communities. Hezbollah’s formal participation in Syria’s war has further instigated some radical actors within Lebanon’s Sunni community to call for fighting Hezbollah in Syria. 

It is worth stressing here that Syria’s war and its outcome have powerful implications for Lebanon’s political alliances. As Lebanon’s system rests on the politics of sectarian power sharing, divided factions have historically sought external allegiances and protectors to consolidate their domestic power. Syria has been a powerful actor on the Lebanese scene during and after the 1975-1990 war. Various factions in Lebanon have sought ‘rapprochement’ with the Syrian regime after the end of the Lebanese Civil War (1990) to acquire predominance and leverage at both domestic and regional levels. This explains why Syria’s war and its outcome emerge today as pivotal tothe constellation of power in Lebanon.  

 

Huseynov: Several battles took place inside Lebanon, while some Lebanese territories were captured and recaptured. The threat of the Islamic State is not gone yet. What kind of efforts does Lebanon put in order to avoid becoming another theater of the Syrian civil war?

Khashan: Lebanon relies heavily on foreign support to keep its border with Lebanon fairly impervious to the spillover of the Syrian conflict into Lebanon. The U.S. has been very active in providing munitions to the Lebanese army and the British have also installed numerous observation posts on the mountain range that straddles the border with Syria. In addition, the Lebanese security forces have been diligent for several years and they receive useful input from various foreign intelligence apparatuses that are active in Lebanon. There is no chance that militant rebels in Syria can pose a serious threat to Lebanese security.

Fakhoury: Efforts to prevent insecurity spillovers from Syria have taken both formal and informal dimensions:

Research shows that in critical moments, the army has collaborated with various security agencies in Lebanon to prevent the spillover of violence from Syria, successfully contributing to fending off the Islamist networks’ threat. Furthermore, there is an informal elite consensus that has prevailed since 2011 that Lebanon’s proneness to violence in the context of Syria’s civil war should be minimized. Thus, despite cabinet gridlock in the last years, political leaders who have openly held antagonistic stances have informally met and sought to dampen cleavages ‘behind the doors’. According to my field research, there is moreover an embedded conviction among Lebanese citizens that a relapse into civil war would only lead to damaging consequences. Against this backdrop, various scholars and practitioners have saluted Lebanon’s resilience despite its frail political apparatus. Lebanon’s power-sharing pact, which paradoxically promotes political paralysis but also consensus and dialogue, is thought to have played a role in reducing the small country’s so-called ‘proneness to war’. 

 

Huseynov: What type of scenario and ending of the civil war in Syria could be more convenient from the Lebanese point of view?

Khashan: The Lebanese of all persuasions prefer to have a weak political system emerging in Syria in the aftermath of its conflict. Syria was preponderant in Lebanon between 1975-2011. No matter how the conflict ends in Syria, it would no longer be able to influence the course of Lebanese politics, let alone shaping them. If anything, and in view of the fact that Syria will devolve into a loose federal order, the Lebanese will start to influence the course of Syrian politics. It is already happening now as Hizbullah operates at will in Syria.

Fakhoury: Lebanese policy makers and citizens have been divided over the most favorable scenario with regards to conflict resolution in Syria. In 2012, some argued either for the survival of the Syrian regime and others for its demise. Nonetheless, the picture got more complex today. There is increasing awareness among Lebanon’s political and public spheres of the complexity underlying Syria’s war, and that there is no straightforward scenario that would end Syria’s war given the enmeshment of various state, non-state, regional and international actors. Some argue that the Syrian regime should remain in power as it has branded itself as a guarantor of regional stability. In this narrative, the preservation of the Syrian regime is essential to both the Syrian state’s territorial integrity and to Lebanon’s interests and political cohesion. Others argue that – in the long run, a more pluralistic system in which various Syrian parties share power is more likely to guarantee coexistence in divided Syria and indirectly peace in Lebanon. 

It is worth adding here that some civil society actors in Lebanon have at the outset of Syria’s war emphasized that the uprising could represent an opportunity for political liberalization in Syria. Nevertheless, they are aware today that ‘democratization’ is a highly uncertain and volatile process in a turbulent geopolitical setting. Syria’s opposition is highly fragmented, and international actors’ divided stances towards Syria have contributed to thwarting the potential rise of a moderate Syrian opposition that could have acted as a political alternative to the present regime.  From this perspective, scenarios of the ending of the Syrian war are fuzzy. Lebanese are aware that even if Syria’s conflict leads to a reconfiguration of political arrangements, the war will have longstanding geopolitical, societal and economic repercussions in Syria’s neighborhood. 

 

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