Arab World: Warning signs in Lebanon

The spillover from the violence in Syria has escalated and grown more complex.

The situation in Tripoli in northern Lebanon is now calm after several days of fierce fighting. The clashes pitted Alawi supporters of the Assad regime in Syria against Sunni Islamist partisans of the rebellion against his rule. At least 11 people were killed in three days of violence. A few days after the Tripoli incidents, clashes also took place between pro and anti-Assad Sunnis in the Lebanese capital, Beirut.

This followed the death, in unclear circumstances, of anti-regime cleric Sheikh Ahmed Abdul- Wahid at a Lebanese Army checkpoint in the north.

 

Lebanon's Hezbollah parliamentarians - Photo: REUTERS
Lebanon’s Hezbollah parliamentarians – Photo: REUTERS

The spillover from Syria into Lebanon has now grown more complex with the kidnapping of 13 Lebanese Shia Muslims near Aleppo in Syria, allegedly by Syrian rebels. The Lebanese were returning from a pilgrimage in Iran. The Free Syrian Army has denied any connection to the abductions.

Some Lebanese analysts believe that the first two of these incidents were deliberately orchestrated by the Syrian regime as part of its attempt to portray the rebellion against it as dominated by Sunni Islamists. Such claims should not be ruled out. The fighting in Tripoli and Beirut should serve as a warning sign as to what can be expected in Lebanon if the civil war currently under way in Syria continues and intensifies, and if the Assad regime begins to sense its own impending demise. The clashes in Tripoli took place along a well-established and well-known line of tension. This is the borderline between the neighborhoods of Bab al- Tabbaneh and Jabel Mohsen – two heavily politicized neighborhoods that tend to the geometrically opposite ends of the political spectrum. Largely Alawite Jabel Mohsen, a stronghold of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, is one of the parties other than the Ba’ath legally permitted to exist in Syria. Once an ideological group, the SSNP is now a clanbased political-military organization well known for its members’ thuggishness and brutality. In Lebanon, it forms one of the tools available to the Assad regime. SSNP gunmen bore the main part of the fighting over the last weeks.

Bab al-Tabbaneh, meanwhile, is home to a large gathering of Salafi Sunnis. It is, consequently, a center of support for both the revolt against Assad and the opposition to the current Hezbollah-led government. The spark that lit the fire for the clashes was the arrest by the Lebanese General Security Directorate of 25-year-old Sunni Islamist Shadi Mawlawi on vaguely defined “terrorism” charges. (He has since been released.) The subsequent fighting in Beirut, which was focused on the Mazraa area of the city, saw anti-Assad and anti- Hezbollah Sunnis attacking and destroying the premises of a pro-Assad Sunni organization.

The kidnappings in Aleppo led to stirrings on the other side of the Lebanese spectrum, as relatives of the pilgrims in Shia southern Beirut went out to the streets and blocked several roads with burning tires. The roads were reopened after Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah appealed for calm.

WHAT, IF anything, can be concluded from this sudden eruption of the Syrian crisis into Lebanon? First of all, it is important to realize the extent to which the politics of the two countries are linked by myriad connections.

Syria occupied Lebanon between 1990 and 2005.

Both the Syrian regime and the insurgency against it have allies in Lebanon, who seek to aid their respective causes.

It is undoubtedly the case that Tripoli forms a stronghold of support for the uprising against Assad. The border between Lebanon and Syria has served as one of the transit points for weapons and supplies for the insurgency. Assad’s Hezbollah allies, as part of the broader regional pro-Iran bloc, have been offering the beleaguered dictator their assistance in a variety of ways. Hezbollah and Lebanese Army forces are deployed on the border to prevent arms convoys from reaching the rebels. Hezbollah personnel have engaged in advising and training Syrian forces for urban warfare and have probably engaged directly in combat alongside the Syrians.

Yet until this month, the distinction between strife-torn Syria and quiet, if tense, Lebanon had been maintained. No longer. The following facts should be borne in mind:

The Syrian regime has a long record of utilization of proxy military organizations and of employing the “strategy of tension” whereby the regime first creates problems and then offers itself as the solution to them. This, indeed, has formed the core of Syrian regional policy under both Bashar and his father. The regime also has a particular liking for manipulating and making use of Sunni Islamists as a tool of its policy. Here, one should recall the open border policy maintained for Sunni militants wishing to take part in the insurgency against the US in Iraq.

The famous Ahmed Abu Adas, a Sunni Islamist who mysteriously appeared in 2005, (falsely) claiming responsibility for the killing of Rafiq al-Hariri, is a similar example of this policy.

The Assad regime at present wants to portray its opponents as Sunni Islamist extremists, in order to cast itself as a bulwark against the spread of Sunni Islamism. The regime has long made clear that if its survival is threatened, it will not die quietly or alone. Rather, the impact will be felt in neighboring countries.

The incidents in both Tripoli and Beirut were sparked by actions taken by the Lebanese authorities – the arrest of Shadi Mawlawi and the killing of Sheikh Abdul-Wahid. Mawlawi was arrested by the General Security Directorate, one of two main Lebanese internal security organs. It is widely regarded by Lebanese as closely linked to the Syrian regime. Given this track record and given the intensifying civil war situation in Syria, it seems probable that the sudden chain of incidents spreading tensions to Lebanon is not happening purely by chance. Rather, the Assad regime is doing what it knows. The Assads specialize in an often crude and transparent application of the methods taught them by the communist police states that were once their closest allies. Lebanon appears to be currently experiencing the latest manifestation of this.

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By JONATHAN SPYER

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