They're safe, not protected |
Gulf Today - 16 July, 2012
Author: Michael Jansen
Lebanon is an island in a sea of trouble, surrounded by conflict-torn Syria on three sides and enemy Israel on the fourth. This is how a Lebanese friend described the country’s predicament. But, she also said, Lebanon’s problems are caused not by exposure to the unrest in Syria but primarily by its own political factions and the confessional system which constantly tear the country apart. If Lebanon becomes seriously infected by Syria’s violence, it will be the fault of the Lebanese, she observed.
My friend was responding to remarks made by US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns who, during a visit to Beirut, observed that Damascus’ attempts to crush the rebellion in Syria are “contributing to instability in Lebanon.”
A businessman also rejected this notion and told The Gulf Today that communal tensions are higher than ever before – for internal rather than external reasons. Politicians, pundits, preachers and even ordinary people are using the crisis in Syria for their own political purposes.
On the one hand, relatives of 11 Shiite pilgrims kidnapped by Sunni gunmen in Syria as they were returning from Iraq regularly block traffic by burning tyres on the airport road and other main routes into and out of Beirut. They demand that the government exert pressure on Sunni elements in Syria to free the men.
On the other hand, followers of Sunni ultra-orthodox Salafi cleric Ahmad Assir are blocking one of the main entrances of the port city of Sidon until Hizbollah, an ally of Syria, surrenders its arsenal of weapons and disbands its armed wing.
This demand is echoed by politicians belonging to the opposition March 14th coalition. On July 5th explosives were found hidden in the ceiling of the lift in the building housing the office of Butros Harb, a March 14th stalwart. He accused the government of responsibility because it had refused to hand over telecoms data that could permit the security services to uncover such plots.
Harb blamed deterioration in the security situation in Lebanon on the presence of “illegal weapons” in the country. His reference to “illegal weapons” was a political statement rather than an assessment of the state of security. The “illegal weapons” he cites are held by Hizbollah which insists that its arms will be used only against Israel if it attacks Lebanon and that its arsenal deters Israeli attack. Nevertheless, like Assir, March 14th is determined to disarm Hizbollah and dissolve its military wing.
In April, Samir Geagea, Maronite Lebanese Forces leader, said he had been fired at by a sniper at his residence while in June former premier Fuad Siniora apparently received warnings from regional and international sources that he could be the target of an assassination attempt. The culprits were presumed to be pro-Syrian elements.
There is no doubt that Lebanon is suffering from some spillover from the conflict in Syria. First, there are tens of thousands of Syrians who are taking refuge in Lebanon. Although the UN High Commission for Refugees says there are 26,900 registered Syrian refugees, it is estimated that the overall figure has risen to 60,000.
Last week, the cash-strapped Lebanese Higher Relief Committee – which has been providing healthcare, shelter, food, and education – shut down key programmes aiding the Syrians. Lebanese government hospitals will offer treatment only for critically wounded Syrians; Syrian fighters and civilians have been coming across the border where they receive free treatment but Lebanon can no longer afford to offer this assistance. Lebanon complains that costs have been inflated by Syrians receiving treatment for chronic ailments. While international agencies have vowed to make up for the shortfall, it is unlikely that all the services supplied by Lebanon will be replaced.
Second, clashes between Syrian army troops and rebels along or near the border have killed and wounded a number of Lebanese.
Third, Gulf tourists have not come to Beirut and the mountains this summer because of fear of Syrian spillover as well as the unconnected deterioration of security in Lebanon itself.
Finally, trade between Lebanon and Syria has collapsed while Lebanese merchants cannot ship their goods across Syria to the Arab hinterland.
The Lebanese authorities have taken two major steps to prevent or minimise real spillover and efforts by Lebanese politicians and preachers to exploit the situation.
On the political front, President Michel Suleiman convened a meeting of the National Dialogue and extracted from the country’s deeply divided politicians pledges that they will adopt a policy of disassociation with the Syrian crisis. The politicians also agreed to give political cover to the Lebanese army to ensure that it can maintain security.
In a significant appeal, Suleiman called upon the country’s political leaders “to create civil peace” so the army can “preserve the peace.”
Former President Amin Gemayel, head of the right-wing Maronite Christian Phalange party, spoke for the opposition March 14th movement, rejecting attempts to draw Lebanon into the Syrian conflict and dismissing suggestions that Lebanon could become a base for the Syrian opposition or the armed rebels fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army. He argued that the politicians must strive to prevent Lebanese from being divided over Syria.
On the ground, the government has ordered the deployment in the north and east of the Lebanese army to prevent infiltration by armed elements and the smuggling of weapons from Lebanon into Syria. The army could also offer protection to Lebanese farmers who cultivate land near the frontier and have been caught up in clashes between Syrian troops and rebels or targeted by shelling by the Syrian army of areas where rebels have taken refuge.
So far the efforts of the authorities have borne fruit and there has been no major spillover of violence from Syria into Lebanon or major incidents created by those who seek to exploit the crisis in Syria to cause trouble in Lebanon. But Lebanon remains vulnerable because of its geography, communal composition, and the character of its citizens.
The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East
affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict