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What is Lebanon saying about the Syrian situation?

Interesting Article: "Syria conflict worries Beirut, reopens divisions" by Angus MacSwan / Beirut published Friday, February 24th, 2012

An interesting article mentioned that People in the Lebanese capital Beirut are watching anxiously as the increasingly bloody conflict in neighboring Syria unfolds, fearing it could spill over the border and bring a return of the violence that tore their own country apart for so long. Beirut has undergone a renaissance since the days when Muslim and Christian factions, as well as Palestinian guerrillas, clashed over a Green Line and foreign interlopers imposed their will with troops, tanks and warplanes. The bars and restaurants of Hamra and Gemmayzeh are buzzing every night with crowds of young professionals and students. So how is Lebanon handling the Syrian situation?

In terms of Lebanon, memories of the car bombs, massacres and kidnappings are still fresh and opinions on Syria vary across Beirut's patchwork of religious communities and alliances, all colored by people's own loyalties and experience of war. In the poor St Michel district, home to Muslim refugees from the 1975-90 civil war, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad is a hero.

However, Lebanese consensus on core national interests vis-a-vis Syria does not go much further. As with most issues in Lebanon, Syria’s unrest is viewed through a sectarian lens, and significant differences characterize Lebanon’s key political actors and religious communities.

Assad wins the approval of some for his support for the anti-Israeli Hezbollah movement, an important political, military and social player in Lebanon though deemed a terrorist organization by the United States and Europe. Such views counter the Western picture of the Syria conflict. Assad has drawn international condemnation, including a United Nations resolution, for the ferocity of his crackdown on the near year-long uprising against his rule.

As the Syrian uprising approaches its one year anniversary, Syria’s downward spiral toward civil war is weighing heavily on Lebanon, and although most political and sectarian groups have a clear interest in stability in Syria, there is no consensus on how to encourage security and handle relations with Syria’s regime and its opposition.

Fifty-two miles west of Damascus (see map above), the Lebanese government in Beirut is following these developments with interest and worry, but has not joined the Arab League or Western states in calling for Assad to step down. Lebanese officials have made it clear that Lebanon could never support a U.N. resolution that would allow the international community to intervene to resolve the crisis in Syria, mostly for fear of negative repercussions this might have on Lebanon. In fact, when the Syrian question first came to the Security Council last year, Lebanon dissociated itself from the presidential statement condemning Syria and has followed suit in the Arab League as well.

Most recently, Lebanese Foreign Affairs Minister Adnan Mansour announced that Lebanon would not attend the “Friends of Syria” conference due to be held in the Tunisian capital Tunis on Feb. 24, stating: “in harmony with our decision to disassociate Lebanon from developments in Syria, we will not join the conference in Tunis.”

Long-standing, polarizing divisions between supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime have forced the government in Beirut to pursue this policy of “dissociation” from the turmoil next door. But as refugees cross the border to escape the violence and weapons and fighters pour freely through the smuggling routes that have long connected Lebanon with Syrian towns now at the center of conflict—such as Homs and Zabadani—the idea that Lebanon can dissociate itself from what is happening next door looks increasingly like wishful thinking.

What all political parties in Lebanon seem to agree on is that widespread instability in Syria—or worse, a sectarian civil war—poses the most significant threat to Lebanon. Lebanese actors across the sectarian spectrum share the perception that Syria’s potential descent into chaos would not be in their strategic interest and, by dissociating the country from the Syrian unrest, are seeking to insulate Lebanon from its neighbor’s instability. This view stems from the concern that massive unrest in Syria could spill over into Lebanon, disrupting the country’s fragile status quo by provoking widespread sectarian strife.

Hezbollah, on the other hand, maintains a key strategic alliance with Damascus, as its core interests lie in the Assad regime’s survival. Aside from the potential loss of a strategic ally, Hezbollah’s concerns over Syrian unrest also reflect the mounting threat to the organization’s credibility, both in Lebanon and the region. Increasingly, Hezbollah has been placed in the seemingly contradictory position of stridently supporting Arab uprisings elsewhere, but remaining conspicuously quiet on Syria. In recent speeches, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has tempered his support for the Syrian regime with tepid calls for reform and a peaceful resolution to the crisis. Nonetheless, Hezbollah’s double standard threatens real damage to its regional standing.

Hezbollah’s allies, including its Christian partners in the March 8 bloc, thus far share Hezbollah’s position on Syria. Indeed, Amal leader and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, has staked out an even tougher position than Hezbollah in support of Syria. Meanwhile, Hezbollah’s Christian allies—namely General Michel Aoun—reflect deepening disquiet within the Christian community over the potential threat to their Syrian co-religionists posed by a post-Assad Syria.

Former President Amin Gemayel said Thursday that the Lebanese should show unity in order to stop the Syrian conflict from affecting Lebanon’s stability.

Speaking after a meeting at Tripoli’s Dar al-Fatwa with the mufti of Tripoli and the north, Sheikh Malek Shaar, the head of the Kataeb (Phalange) Party said “today we need to tighten ranks in the internal arena to confront events in Syria ... we need to protect our country with unity."

Lebanon’s fate is deeply intertwined with Syria’s ultimate destiny, and Syria’s endgame will have a decisive impact on Lebanon, potentially reconfiguring the balance of power between the two countries and reshaping the Lebanese political arena.



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