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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Commons Confidential: When Corbyn met Obama

The Labour leader chatted socialism with the leader of the free world.

Child labour isn’t often a subject for small talk, and yet it proved an ice-breaker when Jeremy Corbyn met Barack Obama. The Labour leader presented the US president with a copy of What Would Keir Hardie Say? edited by Pauline Bryan and including a chapter penned by Comrade Corbyn himself.

The pair, I’m informed by a reliable snout, began their encounter by discussing exploitation and how Hardie started work at the tender age of seven, only to be toiling in a coal mine three years later.

The book explores Hardie’s relevance today. Boris Johnson will no doubt sniff a socialist conspiracy when he learns that the president knew, or at least appeared to know, far more about Hardie and the British left than many MPs, Labour as well as Tory.

***

Make what you will of the following comment by a very senior Tory. During a private conversation with a Labour MP on the same select committee, this prominent Conservative, upon spotting Chuka Umunna, observed: “We were very relieved when he pulled out of your leadership race. Very capable. We feared him.” He then, in
a reference to Sajid Javid, went on: “We’ve got one of them.” What could he mean? I hope it’s that both are young, bald and ambitious . . .

***

To Wales, where talk is emerging of who will succeed Carwyn Jones as First Minister and Welsh Labour leader. Jones hasn’t announced plans to quit the posts he has occupied since 2009, but that isn’t dampening speculation. The expectation is that he won’t serve a full term, should Labour remain in power after 5 May, either as a minority administration or in coalition in the Senedd.

Names being kicked about include two potential newcomers: the former MEP Eluned Morgan, now a baroness in the House of Cronies, and the Kevin Whately lookalike Huw Irranca-Davies, swapping his Westminster seat, Ogmore, for a place in the Welsh Assembly. Neither, muttered my informant, is standing to make up the numbers.

***

No 10’s spinner-in-chief Craig “Crazy Olive” Oliver’s decision to place Barack Obama’s call for Britain to remain in Europe in the Daily Telegraph reflected, whispered my source, Downing Street’s hope that the Torygraph’s big-business advertisers and readers will keep away from the rest of the Tory press.

The PM has given up on the Europhobic Sun and Daily Mail. Both papers enjoy chucking their weight about, yet fear the implications for their editorial clout should they wind up on the losing side if the country votes to remain on 23 June.

***

Asked if that Eurofan, Tony Blair, will play a prominent role in the referendum campaign, a senior Remainer replied: “No, he’s toxic. But with all that money, he could easily afford to bankroll it.”

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism