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15 May 2011

Syria and Lebanon: tied by blood

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

By Liam McLaughlin

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.

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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.