Whenever it rains in Syria, the saying goes, the Lebanese have to get out their umbrellas too. Unfortunately for the Lebanese, they can expect anything but rain to fall right now. Early into the Syrian Civil War, analysts and academics feared they were picking up on signs of an imminent spillover of the fire of war into neighbouring Turkey, Iraq, and Lebanon. Yet they concluded that while the impact of such a spillover into Turkey and Iraq would be disastrous, no neighbouring country would be affected by the Syrian conflict as much as Lebanon.
Four Decades of Syrian Involvement
The historical ties between Lebanon and Syria are extremely strong. Both having gained independence from France at the very end of the First World War, the two countries have always had tumultuous bilateral relations. For over 40 years, Syria kept a steady hand in Lebanese internal affairs, taking on the role of a ‘big brother’.
Sure enough, like the majority of big brothers, Syria has been there, keeping an eye out on Lebanon, finding any reason to intervene in the country. Ever since Hafez al-Assad seized control of Syria in 1970, securing the al-Assad clan’s political future until now, the Syrian security forces have been on call ready to intervene in Lebanon.
The first such intervention occurred when the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) militants relocated to Lebanon following their expulsion from Jordan during the ‘Black September’ episode of 1970. Indeed, they weighed so heavily on Lebanon’s deeply sectarian society that it led to Christian factions fighting Muslim factions. Syria was promptly called upon for help, quickly imposing itself as the leader of the peacekeeping force. When Israel invaded Lebanon for the second time in 1982, Syria was again called upon to fight, along with their new ally, the Shi’a Islamic militant group Hezbollah.
Ever since the 1985 signing (in Syria) of the Tripartite Agreement between Lebanese Warlords, the Syrian regime managed to maintain a circle of allies that enabled it to continue to have a strong grip on Lebanese internal affairs. This grip was reinforced in the Ta’if Agreements of 1989 signed in Saudi Arabia. These agreements provided for the end of all hostilities, thus effectively marking the end of the 15-year Lebanese Civil War. Finally, the signing of a bilateral treaty in 1991 legitimised Syrian military presence in Lebanon.
By then, Syria’s involvement in Lebanon’s internal affairs began to divide Lebanese society. While Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah shouted in the streets of Beirut that, ‘No one can force Syria out of Lebanon, its mind, its heart, or out of its future’ other factions came out in the streets to protest the prolonged continued Syrian presence in Lebanon. The Syrian armed forces were officially expelled from Lebanon in 2005, however their presence can still be felt through Syrian intelligence assets in the country. The important conclusion to be drawn from this short history lesson on Syrian-Lebanese relations is that the history of both countries has been quite intertwined since the days of French colonial rule, with Syria always keeping a watchful eye over Lebanon, accompanied by a heavy hand in its internal affairs and a long-standing military presence that lasted until 2005.
However, saying this relationship was not a two-way street would be concealing part of the truth. Indeed, as astutely revealed by Professor Jamal Wakim of the Lebanese International University, Syria has undeniably been intervening in Lebanese affairs for the past 40 years, however little attention is given to the fact that Lebanon has served as an entry point for any intervention in internal Syrian affairs. All the coups in Syria between 1949 and 1970 have been planned and launched from Beirut, and Lebanon has served as a logistical support base for the groups orchestrating the coups. It is hence a two-way street when it comes to meddling into each other’s affairs. This proves particularly true in the context of the Syrian conflict.
The Two-Way Street that Feeds the Conflict
These historical ties have left deep marks in both countries. The legacy of the Syrian rule over Lebanon continues to polarise Lebanese society into two main categories: those who wholeheartedly support the Assad regime and those who harbour a deep distrust and hatred towards the regime. Noticeable supporters of al-Assad and the current Syrian regime are the Hezbollah, with whom Assad’s regime has had good relations since the second invasion of Lebanon by Israel in 1978 or 2006?, as well as the Alawite minority in Lebanon. The Alawites are an Islamic group, estimated to comprise anywhere between 100 to 120’000 people, mainly based in Syria. They form a minority in Lebanon and Turkey, and have been empowered in Syria by the Assad family, themselves members of this community. The Christian minority also leans more towards supporting the Assad regime, if the community’s leader Michel Aoun’s open support of Hezbollah and the Syrian regime is any indicator. Feeling increasingly threatened particularly by the Islamic factions of the opposition fighters in Syria, and the influx of nearly one million Syrian refugees into Lebanon, some 270’000 chose to settle in Bekaa Valley, near the border, a bastion of the Christian community in Lebanon.
It is that very Valley that seems to be the key to understanding the two-way spillover that is occurring, and that is feeding the Syrian conflict, as well as giving rise to a possibly similar conflict in Lebanon. A large, mostly impoverished, region right at the border with Syria, the Bekaa Valley bears witness to a free circulation of people and weapons. Hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees are flocking to the Valley and other parts in the North of the country and setting up makeshift camps. From Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley becomes a crucial crossing point for members of the Sunni community, longtime supporters of the rebel factions in Syria, as well as for supporters of the Syrian regime.
The question is whether these population movements are moving the conflict closer to the border. Christian residents of the Valley fear the proximity of rebel groups like the Jabhat-al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of ‘Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’, an al-Qaeda affiliate. This particular group poses a considerable threat to the residents of the Bekaa Valley, home mostly to pro-Assad Christians as well as to various different communities of refugees who do not necessarily endorse Jabhat-al-Nusra’s view on the future of Syria.
More inland, the refugee situation has strained the country’s already unstable economy and fragile social fabric. With the issue of who supports whom already dividing the country, the refugees, who bring their memories and ideological baggage along with them, merely render the situation more volatile. Indeed, they simply accentuate the social cleavage, and provide breeding ground for communitarian conflict. In the northern city of Tripoli for instance, armed clashes between Alewites (pro-Assad) and Sunnis (pro-Rebels) have been reported, as well as at least two instances of terrorist attacks against Sunni Mosques in mid-August 2013, following a car bomb attack in a densely Shiite neighbourhood of Beirut earlier in that month. Insecurity and communitarian violence are thus on the rise and Lebanon is slowly falling prey to the very demons that led it to the deadly civil war in 1982.
‘The Worst is Yet to Come’
As such, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the fate of the two ‘Sibling States’ is closely intertwined. While the threat of a spillover into Turkey and Iraq is indeed one to be taken very seriously, the case of Lebanon remains quite complex as a spillover is slowly becoming an inevitable certainty. To speak of a solely Syrian conflict would ignore the actual situation on the ground. Indeed, firstly, this conflict can be seen under a ‘New Wars’ theoretical lens, meaning it is a low-intensity conflict that involves a variety of actors from different ethnic origins and nationalities, using unconventional methods of warfare (terrorism, ambushing, hostage-taking). More particularly however, the current regional climate would be very different if Lebanon and Syria were not so deeply connected. Their history is one of co-dependence and sustained strong, yet unstable ties.
The conflict has already crossed the permeable border between the two States. Indeed, it feeds itself on the sectarian and communitarian divide in Lebanon, and the constant stream of people moving between both countries. What is considered as a Syrian problem is slowly becoming a serious bilateral issue. In the powerful words of Ashra Rifi, the former head of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces, “The flame has entered Lebanon, and the worse is yet to come”. Indeed, unable to be put out or contained at home, the flame of the Syrian conflict unfortunately seems to be spreading like wildfire in Lebanon.