Syria and Lebanon: tied by blood

Fallout from Syria’s violent repression of uprisings could have dangerous effects on its neighbours

It was only a matter of time before the effects of Syria's violent repression of uprisings began to spill over its borders into Lebanon.

Lebanese security and stability are closely linked with Syria's, mainly because the key divide in Lebanese politics is between pro- and anti-Syrian blocs.

Indeed, despite the end to Syria's nearly 30-year occupation of Lebanon in 2005, it remains a strong influence there, and is a critical player in the relationship between Iran and Hezbollah – Lebanon's powerful Islamic militant party. In fact, Hezbollah is part of a ruling coalition due to take power imminently, which will officially align Lebanon with the repressive Syrian regime.

Hezbollah has not been ashamed of its support for Syria over the years – helping form the pro-Syria March 8 Alliance party in 2005 – and most recently, as the Independent's Robert Fisk reported, actively affirming Syrian state TV's claims that Jamal Jarrah of the opposition Lebanese Future Movement party is involved in arming and subsidising the uprising.

It is feared that the legitimisation of such dubious accusations could stoke tensions in northern Lebanon, where, as Fisk writes, there is strong opposition to Syria's violence, emphasised by posters outside Sunni Muslim houses reading, "Assad – you won't escape us."

However, there are also well over 100,000 Alawites in Lebanon – of the same Muslim sect as the al-Assad ruling elite in Syria – mostly based in the north, who will not take kindly to such rhetoric.

It is in the northern districts, too, where Syrian refugees – most of them Sunnis – are being systematically expelled by Lebanese intelligence agents, apparently at the behest of Damascus.

Continued acquiescence to Syria, especially in a situation that stokes religious as well as political and national tensions, is not good for Lebanon, which is operating with a weak caretaker government, and which is more vulnerable to sectarian unrest than most, given the searing legacy of its bloody civil war.

The northern regions of Lebanon have also in the recent past been the scene of clashes between Alawites and Sunnis, and there are fears that if more Syrian Sunnis continue to arrive, tensions between the two denominations could explode once more.

Furthermore, if this does happen, the potential for large-scale pro- and anti-Syrian clashes across Lebanon looms, as well as Syrian military intervention to quell displaced opposition to its regime.

In 2008, as fighting between Alawites and Sunnis reached a peak, the Syrian army actually mobilised along the border.

Because a Hezbollah-backed coalition is due to take power in Lebanon very soon, it is highly unlikely the country's policy towards Syria will change. Rumours that Damascus has also been involved in the negotiations over a new cabinet will help ratchet up the tension.

As a result, a dangerous situation is now emerging for Lebanon, which, besides its own considerable problems, also needs to deal with those of another country – problems that could painfully reopen old wounds.

Liam McLaughlin is a freelance journalist who has also written for Prospect and the Huffington Post. He tweets irregularly @LiamMc108.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.