BEIRUT: In 2013, Lebanon will, more than ever before, be affected by the crisis raging next door, as the prolongation of the battles or, conversely, a deal to end the conflict will have a direct impact on the country, analysts said this week.
Also, a series of tough challenges including, but not limited to, legislative elections, the rising tide of fundamentalism, slow economy, and Hezbollah’s tug of war with Israel are likely to shake the fragile truce the county enjoyed in the past year.
“2013 is the year of all dangers for Lebanon. It is an old cliché to say that Lebanon is ‘dancing on a volcano’ but this cliché has never been so true,” says Karim Bitar, a senior fellow at the Paris think tank Institute for International and Strategic Relations. “The country will face several simultaneous challenges and one taken alone has the potential to destabilize the country.”
Despite the “dissociation” slogan brandished by the government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati since the unrest in Syria erupted almost two years ago, the ripples of the conflict were greatly felt in Lebanon, mainly when sectarian clashes exploded in Tripoli between Sunnis and Alawites at several instances during 2012 killing scores.
Areas along the border with Syria have also suffered a deal with the Syrian military carrying out near daily incursions in search of alleged terrorists and outlaws; the villages also have constituted the first stop for the massive number of refugees fleeing the bloodshed in Syria.
Until, Dec. 31, 2012 the number of Syrian refugees receiving assistance from the United Nations reached over 175,042 as the government struggles to cater to their growing numbers by devising action plans and seeking funds from donor organization and countries. The flow of refugees, the majority of whom are Sunnis, sparked the fears of the country’s shrinking Christian community of a drastic demographic imbalance and inspired heated debates and racist statements.
Lebanon has also constituted a vital route to smuggle weapons to Syria. In April, the Army intercepted off the northern coast the Lutfallah II, a Sierra Leonean-flagged commercial vessel. The vessel carried three containers laden with a large quantity of assorted arms as well as heavy, medium and light ammunition.
International Crisis Group analyst Sahar Atrache expresses surprise that Lebanon has so far remained at a distance with regards to events in Syria, saying she expects 2013 to be a “very dangerous” year, when the so-called “red lines” will no longer hold.
“I truly fear for Tripoli now that the fate of Alawites has been tied to that of the Syrian regime,” she says. “I suspect Sunni-Alawite tensions there will boil over into a full-scale sectarian war.”
Atrache adds that Lebanese groups involved in the Syrian crisis will pursue their “concealed” attempts to support the main players in the Syrian conflict. Despite a lack of tangible evidence, both Hezbollah and its rivals in the Future Movement have been embroiled in supporting the forces of Bashar Assad and rebels respectively.
In October, a car bomb attack that shook the Beirut neighborhood of Ashrafieh claimed the life of top intelligence chief Wissam al-Hasan, a close ally to Hariri and a staunch supporter of the Syrian revolt. Many believe that Hasan’s killing, which has plunged the country into a major political impasse, to be a retaliatory move against the July assassination of Syria’s Deputy Defense Minister Assef Shawkat.
Later in November, pro-Hezbollah newspaper Al-Akhbar released recordings also aired by a local television station allegedly implicating Future Movement MP Saqr in arming Syrian rebels, at the behest of the party’s leader, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
Saqr, who currently resides in Turkey, denied the accusations and said the recordings were doctored. The lawmaker has since insisted he was providing Syrians with humanitarian aid
In parallel, several reports emerged over the course of 2012 accusing Hezbollah of sending fighters to support Assad troops. The reports were fueled by Hezbollah’s announcement, in October, that the commander of the party’s infantry unit in the Bekaa Valley died while performing his “jihadist duty.”
At the time, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah said Ali Hussein Nassif, who went by Abu Abbas, was among those who died defending a string of villages inhabited by Lebanese Shiites but located on the Syrian side of the border.
“The real paradox here is that the rivalry between Hezbollah and the Future Movement, especially with regards to the unrest in Syria, manifested itself on Syrian rather than Lebanese soil this time,” says Atrache
Randa Slim, scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, believes that the demise of Assad was a “done deal,” argues that this year, more than ever before, events in Syria will determine the political game in Lebanon.
“The situation is Syria will hover over Lebanese politics,” she says.
Slim adds that both the March 8 and the March 14 will suffer the repercussions of the turmoil in Syria, although Hezbollah will be the most affected due to its solid relations with the current Syrian regime in terms of armament and financing of group’s resistance activities.
Slim says Hezbollah is currently in the process of adjusting to the new post-Assad regional scene, adding that Hezbollah’s modus operandi was hard to predict at this time. “Even though,” she continues, “Hezbollah has yet to come to the realization that Assad is on his way out.”
However, Slim maintains that Hezbollah will not be party to Assad’s “last ditch effort” to save his regime if this involves shaking the status-quo in Lebanon.
Atrache concurs. According to her, although the fall of the Assad regime is a red line for Hezbollah, the party is equally interested in preserving the status quo in Lebanon.
“When it comes to Lebanon, there seems to be a conflict of interest between Hezbollah and the Syrian regime,” Atrache says, citing the Michel Samaha case as the perfect example.
The former information minister and close ally to Hezbollah was arrested in August by Lebanese authorities and accused of plotting with Ali Mamluk, the head of the Syrian National Security Bureau, to assassinate Lebanese leaders and of transporting explosives into north Lebanon to carry out terrorist attacks.
According to Atrache, Hezbollah has clearly distanced itself from Samaha, opting to keep mum on the case.
“It’s obvious that that Hezbollah does not want to incur a double loss,” Atrache says.
“If they are going to lose the Syrian regime they don’t want to lose the current status quo, which is beneficial to the party.”
Slim and Atrache also agree that the conflict in Lebanon’s biggest neighbor will also have undesirable consequences on the March 14 alliance, which has blatantly and actively supported the uprising against Assad.
Atrache believes that the stance of the coalition was miscalculated and based on “pure vengeance” and the erroneous belief that the fall of Assad will engender Hezbollah’s demise.
“I personally don’t see a link,” she says. “Hezbollah will always have strong points regardless of the party in charge of Syria.”
Atrache adds that the Muslim Brotherhood taking power in the post-Assad era will entail a shrinking in the popularity and influence of the Future Movement among Lebanon’s Sunni. “I can see a rise of the Brotherhood in Syria as beneficial to the Jamaa al-Islamiya, for example, rather than the Future Movement.”
In light of the confusion in Syria which is likely to drag, the fate of legislative polls scheduled to be held in June 2013 remain undecided with various groups still debating the electoral formula according to which the elections will be held.
While the March 14 alliance has voiced support for readopting the winner-takes it all law according to which the 2009 elections were held, the March 8 alliance is vouching for a proportional representation-based law.
Slim says that considering all the uncertainties that dominate the region, holding elections was not “in the political interest” of either of Lebanon’s two main groups.
“Despite public announcements made by various groups that they support holding elections on time, they all believe that the postponement of the vote is less costly political wise,” Slim adds.
Atrach says that Hezbollah will not tolerate a March 14 victory and Slim asserts that if elections do in fact take place, they will be held according to the old law as politicians do not have “incentives for change.”
Slim also speaks about a new political landscape emerging following the parliamentary elections, where centrist figures including Mikati, President Michel Sleiman and Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt will dominate political decision-making in the country.
“If a miracle allows the elections to be held on time, the most likely scenario is that the poll would indicate a relative stability in the popularity of the two camps and it will probably allow some so-called ‘centrist’ candidates to make a breakthrough,” says IRIS’s Bitar.
Slim predicts that Hezbollah’s closet ally in Lebanon the Speaker Nabih Berri will join the “centrists circle.”
But Atrache is skeptical, saying that the post-elections political map was hard to predict. “When it comes to Berri we should be careful,” she says, highlighting that Berri cannot shift positions drastically and explains that Hezbollah and the speaker have divided roles.
She adds that in the current circumstances the alliance between Hezbollah and Berri is unbreakable as it is directly related to the fate of the Shiite community in Lebanon. “Berri plays the role of interlocutor and negotiator on behalf of Hezbollah,” Atrache says.
Bitar too stresses the need to distinguish between “centrism” and an alternative “third way.”
He says that what Lebanon needs today is not “opportunistic centrists” that switch allegiances every few years but rather a genuine third Lebanese way, one determined to put an end to politics as usual, and to focus on the pressing economic and social issues that are all-too often forgotten in Lebanese politics.
“Both Lebanese camps are busy making fiery speeches about regional and international matters on which they have zero influence, and they have shown thinly disguised contempt toward the day-to-day social issues that they are supposed to address,” Bitar adds.