Syria: the view from Lebanon

Tensions in Lebanon, whose political fate has long been intimately tied to Syria, are sharpening rapidly as its neighbour sinks deeper into a sectarian civil war. But a growing number of clashes within Lebanon are now raising fears that a domestic eruption is becoming hard to avoid.  

This essay forms part of an eight-part ECFR series exploring the regional responses, dynamics and ramifications of the Syrian uprising and civil war. These essays have been drawn together in the ECFR report – The regional struggle of Syria.

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Tensions in Lebanon, whose political fate has long been intimately tied to Syria, are sharpening rapidly as its neighbour sinks deeper into a sectarian civil war. For two years Lebanese actors have effectively waged a proxy war in Syria through direct support to the warring parties, but mounting tensions and a growing number of clashes within Lebanon are raising fears that a domestic eruption is becoming hard to avoid. The influx of up to one million refugees, equal to nearly 20% of the Lebanese population, is, meanwhile, placing the state under immense strain just as the economy suffers a significant down turn as a result of the crisis.

At the outset of the Syrian conflict in March 2011 the Lebanese government of Najib Mikati assumed an official position of disassociation, declaring Lebanon too vulnerable to be partisan. The government sought to walk a neutral path, which by and large meant not antagonising Syria, fearful that to do so would invite retaliatory steps from Damascus. Lebanon officially refrained from measures that affiliated it with either the regime or the opposition (such as Arab League sanctions). However, given the central government’s longstanding weak domestic remit, the reality on the ground has been very different. Although Mikati sought to keep some state institutions, such as the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), long regarded as one of the few non-partisan state bodies, neutral, the country’s political actors, seeing their own fates directly tied to the unfolding struggle in Syria, soon became deeply implicated.

The splits within Lebanon over Syria pit the Sunni-dominated March 14 coalition that backs the rebels against the Assad supporting, Iran-leaning, Shiite Hezbollah movement (that dominates the March 8 coalition). For both sides the Syria crisis has assumed strategic importance: given Syria’s longstanding domination of Lebanon and its historic role as upholder of the political order (which continued up until 2011, despite the Syrian army’s forced withdrawal in 2005), Assad’s future and control of Syria will have a significant impact on the balance of power in Lebanon.

On the one side, Hezbollah at first maintained a degree of distance from Assad, wary of provoking an eruption of tensions in Lebanon. It offered the Syrian regime firm rhetorical support but less in the form of material backing. Over the course of this year, however, as the conflict has deepened and Assad has grown more reliant on external support, this position has evolved towards overt material backing, culminating most recently in the deployment of fighters alongside regime troops battling in Qusair. Hezbollah fighters are now assuming a wider role in key frontlines, moving beyond the protection of strategic border passes and Shiite villages and shrines that framed their initial engagement in the conflict. Having long-played down its activities in Syria, Hezbollah head, Hassan Nasrallah, in May openly declared the movement’s participation and commitment to ensuring Assad emerges victorious.

Behind Hezbollah’s growing direct involvement in the war are increasingly existential fears, with the movement viewing the uprising’s support from regional Sunni and international backers as part of a broader offensive against the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah, “resistance axis”. In its calculation the fall of Assad would precede a subsequent offensive against the movement, a fear heightened by claims to this exact effect from some of its domestic opponents. The movement’s position reflects more than simple subservience to its patrons, Syria and Iran, but widening fear that it will be next in line if Assad falls, and a desire to pre-emptively move against such a development. “If we do not go there to fight them,” said Nasrallah, referring to Sunni militants, “they will come here.”

As part of these concerns, Hezbollah fears that its supply lines from Syria, critical to maintaining Iranian military backing, will be curtailed if Assad falls. The movement’s military superiority is central to maintaining its domestic pre-eminence but also to ensuring a deterrence capability against Israel. While the southern border remains calm, Israel in May launched air attacks on weapons in Syria which it claimed were headed to Hezbollah, raising concerns within Hezbollah as to its potential vulnerability and fear that Tel Aviv may seek to take advantage of the crisis to militarily weaken it.

On the other side, meanwhile, Saad Hariri’s Sunni-dominated Future Movement (part of the March 14 coalition) has strongly allied itself with the uprising, viewing Assad’s potential demise as an opportunity to weaken Syria’s hold on the country, and thereby that of Hezbollah. Full support has been thrown behind the uprising with Hariri and his allies, by and large, singularly focusing their domestic political narrative around the Syria crisis. Hariri allies have also played a critical role in facilitating the flow of arms supplies from the Gulf to Syrian rebels, via both Lebanon and Turkey. Key Hariri lieutenants have been deployed within Lebanon and also Turkey to facilitate the flow of weapons to the rebels, allegedly including channelling Lebanese state resources to them.

Of equal if not more significance, however, has been the role of increasingly autonomous Sunni actors and groups, which have assumed a far more militant role in support of Syrian rebels than March 14 political figures and bodies. These groups view the struggle as part of a broader opportunity to restore Sunni pride and reverse their loss of influence in the face of Hezbollah’s ascendancy. Since the beginning of the armed struggle, the north of Lebanon has acted as an important logistical safe haven for the armed struggle. As with Hezbollah, Lebanese Sunnis have also moved into Syria to fight alongside the rebels. This development has, taken as Hariri’s influence has waned given his long absence from the country and dwindling ability to deploy financial means to secure support, precipitated a loosening of establishment control over an increasingly aggressive Sunni street. Militant Sunni actors appear increasingly willing to confront Hezbollah directly and bring the fight to Lebanon – even if they are aware that they would currently be no match for Hezbollah’s military might, a position they hope to reverse if Assad falls. Linked to this concern are fears that extremist jihadi groups may find growing traction in Lebanon, including within Palestinian refugee camps, which have in the past witnessed the emergence of Al-Qaeda linked groups, witnessed most clearly with Fatah al-Islam in the Nahr al-Bared camp.

Just as Syria’s struggle has assumed deep sectarian undertones, so in Lebanon it has also served to cement deepening sectarian polarisation, pitting Shiites against Sunnis in unprecedented severity. Other communities, namely the Christians, have found themselves pulled into the mix, but given their pre-existing division between March 8 and March 14 the impact has been less divisive. Political expediency has thrown Christians into opposing corners on Syria, though there is shared concern about the rise of Islamist forces across the region, as well as anxiety over the demographic impact of the largely Sunni refugee inflow into Lebanon, both of which could reinforce Christian demise. Recent Christian support for a proposed election law, which would see each sect elect its own MPs with the country as a single district, thereby cementing sectarian divisions at the expense of broader political coalitions, points to the impact of these mounting fears.

Nonetheless, and despite relative Lebanese avoidance of spill-over thus far, the fault line principally falls along the Sunni-Shia axis and the battle is clearly now seeping into the country. Already the country’s political system is spluttering. The collapse of the Mikati government in March 2013 came as a direct result of the intensifying tensions and his chosen successor, Tammam Salam, has been unable to form a replacement given the entrenched divisions. In May parliament delayed elections due later this year to November 2014, with MPs citing political deadlock and fears of civil war, highlighting the deepening malaise. In the context of an already weak state system, the capacity of central authorities to exert any meaningful role is being increasingly questioned, creating a vacuum that is being filled by destabilising forces set on advancing narrow sectarian or factional aims at the expense of national interests.

There are now growing fears that the security environment may not be able to withstand these pressures. As tensions mount, key potential hotspots include the Bekaa valley, which is used by both sides for access into Syria, Beirut where Sunnis and Shiites associated with both sides live cheek by jowl, the southern city of Saida where the Sunni sheikh, Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, has been vocally condemning Hezbollah, and the northern city of Tripoli where longstanding tensions between local pro-Assad Alawites and Sunnis are being heightened by the Syria crisis. Fears of domestic implosion are also being fanned by developing cracks in the Lebanese Armed Forces, which has long been viewed, particularly by international backers, as the key non-partisan vehicle for preserving stability. Meanwhile, while the relationship between former close allies, Hezbollah and Hamas, has cooled since Hamas broke with Assad in response to the crisis, a more significant deterioration could potentially result in tensions inside Lebanon given Hamas’ influence in some of the Palestinian camps.

Isolated events already point to the willingness of both sides to bring the conflict to Lebanon. In August 2012, Michel Samaha, a former pro-Assad minister, was arrested for allegedly planning bomb attacks in Lebanon on behalf of the Syrian regime, purportedly aimed at sowing sectarian discord. Two months later, Lebanon’s intelligence chief, Wissam al-Hassan, was assassinated in Beirut (though al-Hassan was involved in channelling armed support from the Gulf to the rebels in Syria, making him a more direct actor in the conflict). In response to Hezbollah’s recent declaration that it was fighting alongside Assad, Syrian rebels have said that they will launch attacks on Hezbollah within Lebanon – both as an act of retaliation but also as an attempt to draw their resources away from Syria. Recently launched missile attacks on Hezbollah areas in southern Beirut and Hermel, though without significant impact, may be a harbinger of what is to come. Intensified attacks by the Syrian air force on rebel support positions in northern Lebanon are not only bringing the conflict directly into the country but fuelling the antagonisms lying behind the threat of even deeper escalation.

At the same time, the regional environment is doing little to secure Lebanon’s peace. Lebanon and its approach to the Syrian crisis cannot be separated from regional forces. Hezbollah is strongly backed by Iran, which is undoubtedly pushing it to strengthen its material support for Assad. Sunni Gulf states (namely Saudi Arabia), meanwhile, actively support March 14, and have channelled some of their very active anti-Assad activities through Lebanon (the north of the country in particular). Qatar is doing likewise and is reported to be an active backer of the more autonomous – and radical – Sunni militant groups gaining ground. In this context, the country is part of the strategic battleground, with regional backers looking to secure their interests even as they battle in Syria. For Tehran, maintaining the strength of Hezbollah is integral to ensuring its deterrence capability against Israel, while also projecting wider regional influence particularly as the fate of Assad becomes more uncertain. For the Saudis, this same struggle makes Lebanon a key focus of interest. Having acquiesced to Syria domination for so long, the shifting regional dynamics offer an opportunity to assert Saudi hegemony as part of a revived Sunni regional order that would weaken Iran’s regional hold.

In addition to these political forces, growing structural pressures associated with the dramatic Syrian refugee inflow – now accounting for approximately 20 percent of the population – is throwing up new challenges. This strain on resources is coming at a time when the economy is already suffering a considerable downturn as a result of the crisis. GDP growth has fallen to approximately 1.5% over the past two years, compared to eight percent in the two years beforehand. Gulf states, whose citizens account for 40% of the country’s tourism revenues, have warned their citizens against travel to the country, while foreign direct investment plunged 68% in 2012 compared to the previous year. Given the pre-existing weakness of state infrastructure, the refugee influx represents a significant new challenge, particularly as many of the refugees have congregated in the poorest areas of the country (such as Tripoli) where social tensions are already on edge. Unlike in Turkey and Jordan where the refugee burden is directly been carried by the central state and international aid agencies, refugees in Lebanon have been absorbed by local communities, without meaningful support, feeding growing strains. There are also concerns that many of these refugees may end up staying in Lebanon long-term, if prolonged violence continues in Syria, or if state collapse or wider sectarian displacement makes their return difficult. In these circumstances Lebanon would be faced with a new refugee problem to rival that of the Palestinians. As the largely Sunni refugee population would be liable to be exploited for political purposes, this would be expected to exacerbate sectarian tensions.

In these circumstances the Syria crisis is clearly hanging very heavily over Lebanon. With each passing day, the country’s political and sectarian divide becomes ever more polarised. What is already an effective proxy – and increasingly direct – battle between Lebanese forces within Syria, reflecting not so much a focus on the fate of Assad per se, but a wider preoccupation with exploiting what his fate means for the domestic balance of power, is increasingly trickling over the border. Lebanon has long been fragile, but the Syria crisis is threatening to unravel the threads holding it together.

June 2013

Julien Barnes-Dacey is a policy fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations. Follow him on twitter @jbdacey

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Director, Middle East and North Africa programme

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