Lebanon News

Lebanon will feel ripples if Syrian unrest worsens

BEIRUT: If the escalating unrest in Syria, sparked by protests against President Bashar Assad’s regime, degenerates into total chaos or civil war it will definitely affect Lebanon and threaten its security and stability, political analysts said Monday.

“Lebanon’s and Syria’s security is organically linked. If the situation in Syria drifts to instability and chaos, this will spill over to Lebanon,” retired Lebanese Army Gen. Elias Hanna told The Daily Star.

“Instability in Syria will definitely leave its political, security, economic and social repercussions on Lebanon.” Stability in Syria means stability in Lebanon,” added Hanna – who teaches political science both at the American University of Beirut and Notre Dame University.

This view was also echoed by Talal Atrissi, an expert on Iran and Middle East affairs.

“Lebanon’s security and stability are interlinked with Syria’s security and stability. A state of instability in Syria will likely spread to Lebanon where there are parties supporting Syria and other parties which are allied with regional and international powers that are working to weaken the regime in Syria,” Atrissi said.

“So, instability in Syria will reflect on the nature of relations between pro- and anti-Syrian parties in Lebanon,” said Atrissi, a lecturer at the state-run Lebanese University.

Atrissi cautioned that if chaos reigned in Syria, “there are fears of chaos spreading to Lebanon, as well as to Syria’s borders with Jordan, Iraq and even Turkey.” No one will be able to control the borders, he said.

In an escalation of the government’s campaign to crush a six-week popular uprising that posed the most serious challenge to Assad’s 11-year rule, Syrian troops backed by tanks, snipers and knife-wielding security forces, stormed into the southern flashpoint town of Daraa Monday, killing at least 20 people.

More than 350 people have been killed since the pro-democracy protests erupted in Daraa on March 15 and later engulfed other Syrian cities. Assad has since been coming under Western pressure to halt the violent crackdown against the protesters.

Sateh Noureddin, a columnist and managing editor of As-Safir newspaper, also voiced fears that the unrest in Syria could lead to the outburst of sectarian violence between the Syrian-backed Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance and the rival March 14 coalition, led by caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

“Instability in Syria will shift tension to Syria’s allies and opponents in Lebanon. A long-simmering political struggle between the two rival [March 8 and Mach 14] factions will erupt into a security clash,” Noureddin said.

“The two groups believe that this is an opportune time to change the political equation and the balance of power in its favor,” he said.

Asked if Assad would be able to survive the current challenge to his regime, Noureddin said, “It is difficult to predict now because we are now witnessing the climax of the confrontation between the regime and the opposition. The two sides are currently engaged in a test of strength.”

Hanna, the retired army general, said that both March 8 and March 14 parties were now reassessing their positions in light of the dramatic developments in Syria.

He said while March 8 groups do not favor a regime change in Syria, “some March 14 groups would like to see a regime change in Syria even if this led to a sectarian war in Syria. These groups are shortsighted.”

“Some March 14 groups want a weak regime in Syria. A weaker regime in Syria would serve the interests of the March 14 groups, mainly Christians,” Hanna said.

He added that he was very worried about the potential situation in Lebanon which could result from ongoing unrest in Syria.

Despite its troop withdrawal from Lebanon in April 2005, ending three decades of its control, Hanna said Syria still wielded great influence here through its Lebanese allies.

“Lebanon is still the backyard for Syria. Syria is still strong in Lebanon through its allies, Hezbollah, [Free Patriotic Movement leader] Gen. Michel Aoun and [MP Walid] Jumblatt,” Hanna said.

Asked if Assad would be able to defeat the current challenge to his regime, Hanna said, “For Assad, it’s a battle for survival. It’s a zero sum game. But you cannot predict what is going to happen in the future. The environment in Syria is highly complicated.”

Seemingly emboldened by the violent crackdowns, the protesters, who began the pro-democracy movement with calls for modest reforms, are now increasingly and publicly demanding Assad’s downfall.

Hanna said that unlike the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt that have led to the overthrow of the two countries’ presidents and where the army in both countries took a neutral stance, “the Syrian Army is backing the Assad regime as was manifested Monday with the Syrian Army push into Daraa.”

He said so far the Americans do not seem to be in favor of a regime change in Syria. “They have prodded Assad to carry out political reforms. Assad needs to make more concessions to appease the opposition,” Hanna said. “It’s a tug-of war between Assad and the opposition which may drag on for months. The opposition will continue to seek more concessions until they reach the negotiation table.”

Atrissi, the expert on Iran and Middle East affairs, said the U.S. has not so far sent any signal supporting a regime change in Syria.

“It might be betting on a change in the Syrian regime’s policy,” he said, adding, “So far, Assad’s position is acceptable and under control amid concern about the future.”

Asked if Assad would move to take on his Lebanese opponents in the March 14 coalition if he managed to crush the opposition at home, Atrissi said: “This option is on the cards. If Assad succeeds in crushing the opposition in Syria, this will definitely lead to a new situation in Lebanon where March 14 groups and the Future Movement will come under new pressure.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 26, 2011, on page 2.

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