Syrian Conflict: The Spillover Effect in Lebanon
There are clear indications that the Syrian internal conflict is now spilling over into neighboring Lebanon. The clashes there between Sunni pro- and anti-Syrian groups followed the shooting death of two anti-Syrian clerics recently.
The violence is the first in Beirut since the conflict began in neighboring Syria in March last year. Syrian and Lebanese politics have been deeply intertwined throughout the history of the two states.
The Syrian conflict is now opening up wounds of the past in Lebanon. The fighting in Beirut has raised fears of a repeat of the sectarian clashes in 2008 that pitted Sunnis against Shi'ites and brought the country close to civil war. The spillover effects have already claimed the life of important political leaders. The cleric Sheikh Ahmad Abdel-Wahid was shot dead at night by Lebanese troops when his convoy failed to stop at a checkpoint in north Lebanon as tensions simmered after Sunnis attacked Alawites, who support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Media reports and interviews with relatives of the 50 pilgrims from Lebanon abducted by armed rebels in Syria have been airing. Female pilgrims in the group were let go and arrived back in Lebanon. The kidnap ordeal has further heightened tensions in Lebanon, which has witnessed clashes between groups opposing and supporting Assad over the last several days.
Syria, the dominant partner, had a large military presence in Lebanon for 29 years, finally withdrawing soldiers in 2005 but maintaining a strong influence. Political factions in Lebanon have often defined themselves as pro- or anti-Syrian.
Many experts are fearing the worst, as Lebanon is a country with history of bloodshed fueled by the sectarian conflict. The latest bad blood between the religious sects accumulated in 2008, when the political sphere of Lebanon changed as Hezb'allah began to dominate in the Lebanese parliament, forming as they the pro-Syrian March 8 alliance.
The spillover effect in Lebanon might have long-lasting implications on the region. Lebanon was a flash point in the recent past. Given the geographical location of Lebanon, the violence, if unchecked, would also make others nervous. Israel battled Hezb'allah in 2006 when Israel entered Lebanon in order to end attacks from Hezb'allah, backed by Syria.
The situation in Syria is not encouraging. More than 5,000 Syrians, mostly women and children from the scene of a weekend massacre, have been found without food or water by a joint team of the Red Cross and Red Crescent. The international community has been vocal on the massacre of the innocent civilians in cities in Syria, and the latest form of protest comes in the form of Syrian diplomats being expelled from countries across the globe.
Japan and Turkey yesterday joined allies around the world in expelling Syrian diplomats and expressing revulsion at the massacre. The USA is joining in the act, expelling Syria's most senior envoy in Washington over what it says is the Syrian government's responsibility for last week's massacre in the village of Houla. While President Bashar al-Assad and opposition forces last month agreed to the peace plan proposed by United Nations envoy Kofi Annan, violence in the 14-month-old conflict is still continuing. Russia and China, longstanding allies of Syria, still opposed military intervention as the war drags on.
The chain of events suggests that the anti-Assad fighters, known as the Free Syrian Army, are here to stay, though still not enough strong to stop Assad's forces. Clashes in the cities of Homs, Dara, and Houla signify a level of violence massive with civilian casualties.
One possible action by the international community might include greater support of the opposition within Syria. The level of assistance could be extended openly to all opposition forces, including sharing vital intelligence about regime security and military formations headed for towns and cities. This could drastically reduce the number of civilian casualties. Another approach might be creating safe zones that could serve as staging areas for the training and equipping of all aspects of the Syrian opposition, including military assistance. With U.S. backing, both Turkey and Jordan might agree on that, as Sunni and Kurdish areas of Iraq could serve as future buffer zones as well.
As Kofi Annan reaches out to the Syrian regime, the violence continues in the cities across Syria. According to a Britain-based watchdog, more than 13,000 people have been killed, most of them civilians, since the uprising against Assad's regime erupted in March last year. The future will be shaped by Shia-Sunni dynamics, the elite Alawi minorities both in Syria and Lebanon, and the level of support from Russia and China for the regime.