Lebanons disassociation policy has failed both sides are to blame

Justin Salhani

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When civil war broke out in Syria, the opinion in neighboring Lebanon was divided. For half the country, Syria is a sister-state with which Lebanon shares a special relationship. For the other half, Syria was a long time occupier who still has too much say into who governs Lebanon.

Arab states and international governments began picking sides; some expelling Syrian diplomats, others maintaining that the regime of Bashar al-Assad would reform. When the decision fell upon the government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati about which side to take, the only option was one of disassociation. Despite claims from March 14 that Mikati was a Hezbollah stooge, he showed himself to be a centrist. Mikati's compromise protected his government from collapse all the while preserving diplomatic relations with the international community; sans the Syrian regime of course. Therefore, Lebanon would neither officially support Assad or the Syrian opposition.

The policy has so far kept fighting between opposing factions in Lebanon minimal, apart from sporadic clashes in Tripoli and a couple days of venting frustration by groups in Beirut against the Lebanese army.

But the parties did not mimic this idea of disassociation. The March 14 bloc openly sided with the Syrian National Council and has made their feelings known they would prefer to see the regime that occupied their country for almost 30 years replaced. Meanwhile, Secretary General of Hezbollah Hassan Nasrallah has repeatedly made his support of Assad known, citing him as a key supporter of the resistance to Israel. Leader of the Free Patriotic Movement Michel Aoun, an ally of Hezbollah, even called Syria the most democratic country in the Middle East. Though with only one family ruling the nation since 1971 Aoun's statement is bizarre, to say the least.

Despite the decision, there are those who believe the Mikati government has been disassociated only in rhetoric and not in action. In November, former Tripoli MP Misbah al-Ahdab told me that Mikati hadn't taken any concrete actions to claim disassociation. Ahdab's criticism stems from the idea that parts of the approximate 375 km of shared border between Lebanon and Syria has been vulnerable to attack from the Syrian army. There have also been multiple accounts of Syrian fighters retreating across the Lebanese border.

Future MP Ahmad Fatfat also believes not deploying the army on the border was a major failure of the Mikati government. However, when I asked Fatfat if it would be possible to deploy the army on the border, his response was a resounding "No." Fatfat's reasoning is that Assad's ally Hezbollah is in control of much of the border area in the Bekaa Valley. Areas controlled by Hezbollah rarely allow state security officials access.

Yet, there is something Fatfat failed to mention. One political analyst, who asked his name be withheld to avoid causing him trouble, said that Fatfat was omitting the presence of armed Sunni fighters in Arsal and Akkar that were aligned with March 14 and the Free Syrian Army. The analyst added that they were even engaging in clashes with the Lebanese army.

Both journalist Mohammad Machnouk, a self described neutral observer, and March 8 MP Ghassan Moukheiber expressed to me that the current government had done about as much as realistically possible to keep Lebanon out of the conflict. But while Mikati and Lebanese President Michel Sleiman have done nearly all they are realistically able to, both major political blocs have undermined the government at nearly every turn.

On the pro-Syrian regime March 8 side, there have been numerous reports of funerals held for Hezbollah fighters, including officials, that died while fighting in Syria. NBC's Middle East correspondent Richard Engel said after his release from captivity by pro-regime Shabiha that he was being transported to a Hezbollah base until their convoy was stopped at a rebel checkpoint. The New York Times' Neil MacFarquhar reported Thursday that analysts believe "Hezbollah fighters have been sent to Syria to protect areas important to Shiite Muslims" and that they are advising the Syrian Army on strategy and tactics.

Hezbollah aren't the only ones though. Twenty-two Sunni fighters from the north were killed by the Syrian army after they crossed the border a couple weeks ago (though it is unclear if this was related to any Lebanese political faction). Also, despite his denials earlier this month, exiled Future MP Okab Sakr is still widely believed to be a liaison between Gulf states and the Syrian rebels by providing some sort of logistics, as reported by a number of Western publications. If this isn't enough, the Washington Post's David Ignatius reported in October that the late Lebanese security chief Wissam al-Hassan, who died in a calculated car bomb in the Achrafieh neighborhood of Beirut two months ago, was in discussions with "US officials about ways to encourage the Free Syrian Army." Hassan reportedly told Ignatius in a telephone call from Paris that the US should be working with Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey to train rebels and that "Every dollar and every single bullet has to go through the higher command."

Syria has also stepped up their efforts at causing chaos, as evident by the arrest of former minister Michel Samaha after he was allegedly caught on video confessing to smuggling explosives into Lebanon and the bombing of the Yarmouk refugee camp. The Yarmouk attack is thought by some to be an attempt by the regime to drive a further Sunni element into Lebanon and to destabilize the fragile sectarian balance.

With both sides clearly undermining the authority of the Lebanese government the tired cliche of the Syrian war's "spillover effect" is becoming more and more likely to engulf Lebanon. The Lebanese policy of disassociation, despite the government's best efforts, has failed due in large to March 8 and March 14's disregard for the well-being of the nation they both claim to care so deeply about. Though if truth be told, the disassociation policy, and some would say the nation, was most probably doomed from the start.

(Justin Salhani is a Lebanese-American reporter/journalist based in Beirut, Lebanon. He primarily covers politics, security and cultural affairs in Lebanon and the Middle East and is a contributor to The Daily Star Lebanon, the Christian Science Monitor and other publications, currently working in Now Lebanon. He can be found on Twitter @JustinSalhani.)
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