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The Syrian facets of Lebanon’s crises

Eyad Abu Shakra

Published: Updated:

Lebanon did not need a painful accident, such as the tragedy of the emigrants’ boat that capsized en route from Indonesia to Australia, to remind everybody that it is not just facing any old crisis—this is an existential one.

The tragedies afflicting Lebanon are many, and all are painful. However, they have been overshadowed by the Syrian ordeal and the difficulties arising from adapting to the Arab Spring uprisings that occurred in several Arab countries. This is quite normal. Indeed, following a summer season that was—by any and all measures—a failure, a frustrating political stalemate and a security situation that is impossible to ignore, it would not be surprising if the expected collapse had occurred some time ago.

That the crux of the crisis is political is indisputable. Lebanon is a country with limited sovereignty, living with a state within its state. We might try to argue that the Lebanese are the ones responsible, first and foremost, for agreeing to become puppets serving certain regional projects. But any genuine solution today that is isolated from the developments of the Middle East—particularly on the points where Israel and Iran have the same interests—is impossible. And after they address that issue, the Lebanese will have to negotiate the balance of power and the battle of wills between the retreating United States and Russia, with Moscow keen to take advantage of Washington’s withdrawal.

Deceiving themselves

The Lebanese have deceived themselves for a long time, urging the Arab forces to help them settle their differences without having any genuine desire to hold an in-depth national dialogue. Most of the alliances the warring Lebanese forces weaved were tactical, based on the need to fleetingly bully their national partners in a country whose very borders—which were drawn up in 1920—are not the part of any national consensus.

The tragedies afflicting Lebanon are many, and all are painful. However, they have been overshadowed by the Syrian ordeal.

Eyad Abu Shakra

Over time, there has been an accumulation of mistakes and errors, and those responsible remain convinced of their success. As a result, the Lebanese arena became even more confused. The Lebanese are torn between the desire of some to reform the political system in order to accommodate the political entity—i.e. the country within its current borders—while others express fears that an entity as fragile as Lebanon, with its delicate factional balance, could not withstand any reform whatsoever. Consequently, the things that united Lebanese societies and communities decreased despite the fact that secular parties appeared on the scene, attempting to end the entrenched state of sectarian polarization.

However, the secular parties, most of which had left-wing affiliations, found themselves involved in a conflict far larger than they could have imagined, particularly after they convinced themselves of the possibility of exploiting the presence of the armed Palestinian resistance in their own battle to bring down the so-called the regime of sectarian privileges, not to mention its state institutions, including the military and security apparatus. Thus, these secular parties that assembled under the name of the Lebanese National Movement (LNM) descended into a war that in the end only served sectarianism. Right-wing Christian parties at the time—during the 1970s—found themselves in a similar situation to that facing the Alawite-led power structure in Syria today: They believed they were fighting for the survival of their sect. For their part, the right-wing Christian parties did succeed in winning the support of the majority of the Christian population.

Hafez al-Assad’s Syria

The most dramatic development came via the role played by the Syrian regime. At the time, the LNM was convinced that Hafez al-Assad’s Syria—under the rule of the Arab Socialist Ba’athist Party, which raised the slogan of resistance and steadfastness, and which enjoyed strong influence on the Palestinian resistance—could not but be on its side. In fact, the LNM was of the view that the Assad regime constituted its strategic depth. Why would it have thought otherwise, given the commonalities between them, most prominently Pan-Arabism, secularism, socialism and, of course, commitment to liberating Palestine and advocate for the Palestinian resistance?

The LNM’s realization of the reality of the situation, and the true nature of its so-called “ally,” came all too late. It was revealed that Hafez al-Assad’s Syria was charged with emasculating the resistance and running the clock down on the Arab role in Lebanon. Among the aims of the Syrian regime was to establish a sectarian–religious state, beginning with altering the political ideology of the Shi’ite sect itself, and the features of this are becoming increasingly clear with the passage of time. The tempo increased following the Iranian revolution and the Damascus regime’s support of Iran during the Iran–Iraq War. It is also worth noting that Hafez al-Assad—whose forces were granted the green light from the U.S. and Israel to enter Lebanon in the mid-1970s—justified his coup against his former Lebanese and Palestinian allies on the grounds that the extremists among them would drag Syria into an untimely confrontation with Israel.

In any case, the Lebanese Civil War of 1975–1990 ended with the wholesale defeat of all the Lebanese players who deluded themselves into believing that they could commission any regional or international force to settle their “minuscule” domestic scores for free. The war ended with Damascus being tasked with running the affairs of Lebanon. However, since 1990, following the Taif Agreement, Damascus has interpreted and implemented the terms of this treaty selectively against the backdrop of consolidating its strategic relations with Iran.

1982 Lebanon war

The 1982 Lebanon war was an important milestone as far as Lebanon’s domestic situation is concerned. The policies of U.S. president Ronald Reagan and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin shook the regional balance of power that Hafez Al-Assad had established, confusing his calculations. But stability and tolerance soon returned as the Syrian regime exploited Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and participated in the war against Saddam Hussein. Thus Damascus was commissioned once more, with the Assad regime continuing to consolidate its relations with Iran under the watchful eyes of Tel Aviv and Washington.

At that time, the domestic political balance and the demographic situation in Lebanon were in the process of radical change. Minorities declined and their influence receded. The Shi’ite powers affiliated with the Tehran–Damascus axis monopolized the right to possess weapons, benefiting from this monopoly on all levels. As for the Sunni forces, in Rafik Al-Hariri they found a new and effective leader who enjoyed strong Arab, Islamic and international relations, and thus could temporarily compete with the Shi’ite ascendancy.

During his rule, Hafez al-Assad’s ability to control the balance of his relations with the Lebanese players, in addition to his Arab-Iranian and U.S.–Russian relations, kept the situation in Lebanon under control. In addition, the Lebanese economy managed—thanks to Hariri’s presence—to breathe freely and restore some of its vitality.

All this changed with the death of Hafez al-Assad, which was followed by the assassination of Hariri in 2005 during the Bashar al-Assad era and the arrival of the so-called “new guard,” not to mention Iran’s direct influence in Syria and Lebanon. These were factors that contributed to the collapse of the status quo and the removal of the safety net, first in Lebanon, and subsequently in Syria.

Lebanon today is an occupied country suffering from a lack of national consensus while Syria is under threat of division and fragmentation for the first time since 1920. This is not to mention that psychological division had already taken place given the ferocious hostility and the desire to eliminate others.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on Oct. 11, 2013.

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Eyad Abu Shakra (also written as Ayad Abou-Chakra) began his media career in 1973 with Annahar newspaper in Lebanon. He joined Asharq al-Awsat newspaper in the UK in 1979, occupying several positions including: Senior Editor, Managing Editor, and Head of Research Unit, as well as being a regular columnist. He has several published works, including books, chapters in edited books, and specialized articles, in addition to frequent regular TV and radio appearances.

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