In the midst of the repressive Syrian regime’s all-out war against rebels and revolutionaries, the strategic Arab state of Lebanon has struggled to maintain its sovereignty and avoid entanglement in neighbouring Syria’s internal crises. Lebanon has constantly lived in the shadow of Syria’s influence, literally carved out of Greater Syria by the French imperial authorities under a League of Nations Mandate after the First World War.
Nominally independent since the early 1940s, foreign interference has never been far from the surface of internal Lebanese politics. In the civil war of 1975-1990, rival states fought proxy wars in Lebanon by ruthlessly backing and betraying antagonistic political, economic and sectarian forces within the country. Two contiguous states, Israel and Syria, intervened with the warring parties and even invaded different areas during this time, occupying significant parts of Lebanon for decades. While Israel withdrew in 2000 under different conditions from Syria in 2006, the scars of their invasions and occupations have left Lebanon in a perpetually weakened state of sovereignty and independence.
One major impediment to Lebanese national reconciliation and the rebuilding of non-sectarian state institutions is the continued existence of Hezbollah within Lebanon’s borders. The Taif Agreement of 1989, which signalled the beginning of the end of the civil war, envisioned the dismantling of all militia movements. Even after all other militant groups were dissolved in 1991, Hezbollah refused to disarm.
Ever since, Hezbollah has rivalled the Lebanese Armed Forces as a ‘state-within-a-state’ with de facto autonomy in the southern regions populated by Shiite Arabs, and has pursued its own interests at the expense of Lebanon’s. For instance, Lebanon’s only recent international conflict took place in July and August 2006 when Hezbollah fought Israel to a bloody standstill over 34 days in which thousands of Lebanese civilians were killed or injured and Lebanese infrastructure suffered billions of dollars in war-related damage. Any strategic or symbolic victory won by Hezbollah in this conflict cost the state of Lebanon severely.
Every now and then, news reports filter through of isolated incidents of cross-border violence between the armed forces of Lebanon and Israel; after all, these two countries have technically been in a state of war since 1948. The most serious confrontation since 2006 occurred in a massive military exchange of gunfire on the border in August 2010, resulting in the deaths of an Israeli colonel, three Lebanese soldiers and a Lebanese journalist.
While the risk of war is omnipresent on the Lebanese-Israeli border, United Nations peacekeepers patrol the area and effectively provide the two states with a buffer zone. The onset of the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war was precipitated by violations of that buffer zone and the coordinated attack and kidnapping of Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah on the border with Israel. As long as similar provocations do not undermine the mutual deterrence between the states of Lebanon and Israel, a tentative yet non-militaristic coexistence is likely to continue to characterize their relationship.
Today, however, the most serious threats to Lebanese security and stability arise from the spillover effects of the Syrian uprising next door. The Syrian military has recently escalated its strikes against rebel factions seeking refuge in northern Lebanon, reportedly killing five and wounding 10 more in the villages of Wadi Khaled and al-Mahatta as of July 7, 2012. The northern city of Tripoli is the site of pro-Syrian regime Shiites openly battling pro-Syrian rebel Sunnis in the streets, with over 30 Lebanese citizens killed in these sectarian conflicts since the uprising in Syria began over a year ago in March 2011.
Just two months ago in May 2012, the kidnapping of Shiite Lebanese pilgrims in the Syrian city of Aleppo by sympathizers of the opposition Free Syrian Army – apparently in retaliation for their fellow Shiites’ support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – nearly led to internecine warfare in Beirut and the Bekaa Valley until Hezbollah-leader Hassan Nasrallah appealed for peaceful protests. And a mere two weeks ago in late-June 2012, a leading Lebanese television station (al-Jadeed) was attacked after an interview with a Sunni cleric aired which criticized the country’s Shiite leaders for their policies towards Syria.
Lebanon is not the only state bordering Syria which has felt the effects of its civil war. Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has brazenly called for the Syrian president to step down after lambasting the regime’s conduct during this rebellion towards its own people. Syria’s recent downing of a Turkish fighter jet and the non-stop influx of Syrian refugees into neighbouring countries (more than 100,000 in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq) signal the increasing volatility of Syria’s internal crisis and its nearing a breaking point in which international intervention may finally be warranted to stop the bloodshed and replace the Assad regime. Aside from refugee inflows, Jordan and Iraq have both felt the consequences of the Syrian government’s crackdown on its people as money and weapons are smuggled in and out by Syrian government supporters and detractors in a push by both sides to defeat the other in combat.
So how does Lebanon fit into the Middle East’s security dilemmas? Revolutionary movements in the Arab World have so far led to democratically elected governments – albeit with minimal executive and questionable legislative power and authority – in Tunisia and Egypt, with Libya joining the list of post-Arab Spring elected governments in July 2012. Following a transitional regime change in Yemen, paltry reforms in Jordan and Morocco, the bribing of loyal populations in the Gulf Arab states, the squashing of a popular revolution in Bahrain, and an ongoing civil war in Syria, Lebanon at least boasts a functioning government that grants its citizens basic civil rights and political freedoms.
Lebanese democracy however is neither secure nor sacred, with notable exceptions to its political cohesion, rights, and freedoms apparent when those rights and freedoms contradict Hezbollah’s party line or Lebanese governmental policy towards sectarian affairs, religious matters or its powerful neighbours. In the meanwhile the Arab Spring – an anti-regime revolutionary movement demanding political reform – has largely bypassed Lebanon. This will surely be a discouraging sign for pro-democracy activists and human rights advocates engaged in the country.
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