Is Lebanon getting the flu?

By Flora Mory

Upon his arrival in September in Beirut, Pope Benedict XVI was welcomed by the Lebanese president Michel Sleiman, the Middle East’s only Christian head of state. Both, the Sunnite Prime Minister Najib Mikati and the Shiite President of Parliament Nabih Berri were also present, as well as religious leaders of all of the 18 recognized religions, demonstrating unity. During his stay in Lebanon, the Papa praised Lebanon, a country with a recent experience of a 15 year-long bloody civil war (1975-1990), for setting a model for co-existence in the Middle East. However, the appearance of unity is rather deceiving: After all, the turmoil caused by the anti-Islam film in the Middle East and more than anything, the crisis of the Neighbour Syria illustrate strong divisions in the Lebanese society. The Shiite-Sunni division line in Lebanon, which also runs through Syria and Iraq, has recently been highlighted by violence, overshadowing the Pope’s idea of “peaceful Lebanese co-existence”.

Especially Tripoli, the north-Lebanese port city, has staged the tensions most clearly. The anti-Islamic film “Innocence of Muslims”, which caused upheaval in the Muslim world, also led to protests in Lebanon and Tripoli. There, rioters set two American fast-food restaurants on fire, while shouting, „ we don’t want the pope“, and tragically one person was killed.


In another part of Tripoli, in the streets of Jabal Mohsen, Syria’s president Bashar al–Assad continues to smile from posters on walls: Jabal Mohsen is the district in Tripoli where Lebanon’s Alawites live. They belong to the same Shiite sect as Syria’s struggling ruler Bashar Al-Assad. In the past months this area was the stage of fights between the Alawites and the Sunnis from the neighbouring district Bab al-Tabbaneh. „Everyday you can hear gunfire, some days the gunfire escalates and street fights, which spread out in the close-by districts, evolve,” says Omar, who is taking care of Tripoli’s famous Crusader Citadel, pointing at a gun hole in a splintered window. Alia El Rifai, a student from Tripoli studying at Sciences Po Paris in Menton, confirms: “ Some nights the shooting can be heard all over Tripoli.”

Although generally concentrated in a certain part of Tripoli, this conflict has become a deadly reproduction of the Syrian crisis. Since the first fighting in early 2012 dozens have been killed and also the capital Beirut has seen fights and a some casualties. Although the Lebanese Alawites are clustered in Jabal Mohsen, the entire country is witnessing tensions between the camp in support of the Syrian Revolution and the opposing camp supporting Assad. In late summer, the kidnappings of more than 30 Syrians and two Turkish citizens on Lebanese territory it the Bekaa valley close to the Syrian border caused upheaval. Multiple Shiite family clans had committed to the kidnappings, saying that they were acting in response to kidnappings of Shiites by Syrian rebels in Syria. Though these incidents had put the Lebanese armed forces on alert, it became evident that the Lebanese state is paralysed. For one month the armed forces refrained from taking action against private militias, due to fear of inciting a break-out of the conflict inside Lebanese borders, now that the violence no longer makes a halt before the borders.

The kidnapping incidents in the summer and the continuous fighting in Tripoli give reason to question whether the state can prevent an escalation of the tensions between the pro-Assad and anti-Assad camp on Lebanese territory. Despite its internationally supported isolation policy, which entails no taking sides in the Syria question, radical changes or events in Syria at this critical point in time could be potential triggers of a national crisis. Just as the Levantine saying expresses it best: When Syria sneezes, Lebanon gets the flu.

Should the Syrian regime around al-Assad fall, Lebanons power-equilibrium is threatened to collapse. Already since 2005, after the end of the 30 year Syrian military occupation of Lebanon, the small Mediterranean state is divided into political and multi-confessional alliances: the pro-Western, anti-Syrian influence „14th March Alliance“ (Sunnis and Christians) is opposing the „8th March Alliance“ (Shiites and Christians), which currently dominates the cabinet. Especially the 8th March members, Shiite Hezbollah and the Christian Free Patriotic Movement FPM, fear for their interests. „We are standing behind Assad“, says Michel de Chadarevien, the FPMs responsible for Diplomatic Relations. „We are first and foremost Christians and secondly we are Lebanese – we give support to al-Assad and Hezbollah as they ensure the existence of the Christians in the region by equilibrating the confessional forces.” Only a part of the Christian community supports this controversial, rather opportunist agenda of the FPM. A lot of Christians find it unacceptable that a former anti-Syrian party, like the FPM, cooperates with a radical-Islamic party like the Hezbollah. After all, important decisions of the „Party of God“ have more than once turned out to be loose cannons. When entering Sunni parts of Beirut with arms in 2008, the Hezbollah lost legitimacy to portray themselves as the defender against the outside enemy Israel, by raising weapons against Lebanese citizens.

“Even if Hezbollah can no longer receive arms via Syria, Hezbollah is the best-equipped actor in Lebanon. For years it has been building up its arsenal“, says Lucien George, former LeMonde journalist and editor of the Middle East edition of LeMonde. Nevertheless, a regime change in Syria to the disadvantage of Nasrallahs “Brother-in-Arms” Assad, in favour of Sunni forces would be a big loss for Hezbollah and its financier Iran. Hezbollah would need new transit ways for deliveries from Iran; Iran would be loosing its only ally in the Arab world and also its access to the Mediterranean. Further, the Hezbollah dominated South of Lebanon, Iran’s front against the “ultimate enemy” Israel, might be under threat. “Iran will not just watch this happening”, predicts George, “one can assume that Iran’s prolonged hand, the Hezbollah, will attempt to impose itself more in the region.” The anti-Islam video, which has caused so much turmoil in the Muslim world, provides a perfect opportunity to do so morally, multiple times Hassan Nasrallah made public appearances to defend the prophet and called on the United States for completely preventing the possibility of “insulting our Prophet, Quran and sanctities.”

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