Syria spill-over threatens to engulf Lebanon

Outbreaks of sectarian violence expose Lebanon’s vulnerability to outside forces.

Lebanon lives in a tricky neighbourhood. Wedged between Israel to its South and Syria to its East, its people have long found themselves at the mercy of the region's internal dynamics. 

Surprisingly, it has so far managed to evade the rising wave of civil unrest that has consumed the Middle East. Lebanon had become an citadel of calm amidst the turbulence of the Arab Spring.

However, Friday’s assassination of Wissam al-Hassan – the country’s intelligence chief – has shattered this façade to unleash the very same forces that devoured the country during its many years of civil war.

Whilst these sectarian rifts have long characterised Lebanese society, they have been increasingly sharpened by the deepening conflict in neighbouring Syria. Lebanon’s Shia community, which includes Hezbollah, has backed the Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad, whereas the country’s Sunni minority has supported the predominantly Sunni Syrian rebels. 

Even though the Syrian army ended its 29-year occupation in 2005, Lebanon has nonetheless remained hostage to political machinations in Syria, with its weak government and fractious society providing a vehicle through which the Assad regime can wield influence.

As a leading Sunni figurehead, al-Hassan was widely hailed as a bastion of influence for Lebanon’s Sunni minority. A fierce critic of Syria, he represented an essential bulwark for the Sunni minority against the subversive reach of Damascus.

In 2005, he ruffled feathers by spearheading an investigation that implicated Syria and their Lebanese allies Hezbollah in the murder of five-time Sunni prime minister Rafik Hariri. The revelations sparked the Cedar Revolution, which effectively ousted Syrian forces from the country.

In August, he exposed the involvement of Michel Samaha – a key pro-Assad Lebanese minister – in a plot to plant explosives in the Sunni  district of Akkar, a hotbed of support for the Free Syrian Army. Bombs were found in the back of Samaha’s car and he was promptly arrested.

Naturally, his staunch anti-Syrian agenda had made him persona non grata with both Damascus and Lebanon’s pro-Syria Shia factions, particularly Hezbollah, to whom the survival of the Assad regime is essential.

It comes as no surprise then, that his assassination has been met with furios accussions of foul-play from Sunni opposition leaders, who have laid the blame squarely with the Assad regime:

“We accuse Bashar al-Assad of the assassination of Wissam al-Hassan, the guarantor of the security of the Lebanese”, said Saad Harir, leader of the Sunni Future Party and son of former prime minister Rafik Hariri.

“We blame Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria”, a demonstrator told the Associated Press at Hassan’s funeral on Sunday. “He is responsible for everything – in the past, now, and if we don’t stand up to him, the future”.

The sentiment was shared by numerous Sunni protesters demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Mikati, whose cabinet is dominated by Shia politicians believed to be in cahoots with Assad.

At Sunday’s funeral, demonstrators vented their rage by throwing volleys of stones, pipes, and bottles at police, with hundreds breaking away from the ceremony to storm Mikati’s offices at the government palace.

That night, the crack of gunfire rang out through central Beirut. Likewise, running battles between anti-Assad Sunni neighbourhoods and pro-Assad Shia communities rocked the coastal city of Tripoli, killing 7 and wounding dozens.

On Monday, Lebanese forces fanned out across the country, flanking major thoroughfares and dismantling roadblocks.  

“We will take decisive measures to prevent Lebanon being transformed again into a place for regional settling of scores, and to prevent the assassination of the martyr Wissam al-Hassan being used to assassinate a whole country”, said an army statement.

Lebanon is a country on the precipice. Whilst the country has pulled itself back from the brink numerous times since the end of its 15-year civil war, the fallout from Syria’s revolution threatens to exacerbate the sectarian divides that have plagued Lebanon throughout its history.

Whilst it would be naive to say the country is plunging headfirst into certain civil war, the current situation in Lebanon is a veritable powder keg; a tinderbox being licked by the flames of the Syrian uprising.

The death of Wissam al-Hassan has upended Lebanon’s fragile political balance, aggravating its historically embedded sectarian divide; a widening split that threatens to condemn Lebanon to a future much like its gloomy past.

A Sunni woman mourns the death of Lebanese intelligence chief Wissam al-Hassan, who was assassinated in a car-bomb on Friday. Photo: Reuters

Alex Ward is a London-based freelance journalist who has previously worked for the Times & the Press Association. Twitter: @alexward3000

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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war