BEIRUT: On March 15, 2011, as a group of protesters gathered near the Omari Mosque in the Syrian city of Deraa, helping to spark that country’s uprising, in Lebanon many people were focused on the mountains of Kesrouan, where Bishop Beshara Rai was elected the 77th patriarch of the Maronite Church in Bkirki.The election of Rai the very day the unrest began provides one sign of Lebanon’s difficult position amid the turmoil next door.
During nearly the entirety of Rai’s tenure, events in Syria have dominated the news in Lebanon and the developments have been followed closely by the country’s politicians and public. The patriarch’s evolving and controversial stances on Syria, which alternatively anger and please a given side in Lebanon, indicate how challenging the situation is.
During the 12 months of the demonstrations and insurgency next door, Lebanon’s political scene has distinguished itself by presenting shades of gray. The country is supposedly split down the middle between the March 14 and March 8 coalitions, but neither has opted to flex its muscles by staging massive shows of public support for its stance on the Syrian crisis.
The original March 8, 2005 demonstration in Downtown Beirut, by Hezbollah and its allies, was to “thank Syria” for its 29-year stay in Lebanon, but no similar mass show of support for the at-times beleaguered regime in Damascus has taken place in the last year.
Pro-Syrian demonstrations have been carefully calibrated, and have almost always numbered in the low thousands, or hundreds.
An official from the Syrian Social Nationalist Party acknowledged that a desire to avoid any kind of “provocation” meant that March 8 groups were largely reacting, rather than acting.
March 14 politicians might criticize their rivals sending partisans or Syrian workers to bully anti-Assad activists in the streets of Greater Beirut, but the responses by March 8 have appeared to be a case of matching what the other side puts out, but not exceeding it.
The SSNP official acknowledged that the lack of mass rallies by the March 8 groups in Lebanon might not please some supporters of Damascus, or the regime itself, but that a desire to avoid destabilization here should be the priority, particularly since March 8 groups dominate the government to begin with.
Meanwhile, for March 14, its signature gathering was celebrated indoors, at the BIEL complex on the Mediterranean, and not in Martyrs’ Square as in previous years.
Why no “million-man” gathering in support of Syrian demonstrators?
As March 14 member and ex-Beirut MP Ghattas Khoury said on TV recently, his coalition would put people in the streets “when it becomes necessary.”
A few small demonstrations and sit-ins have taken place by either side in Greater Beirut, while anti-Syrian gatherings have for the most part been left open to freelancers.
These include the mosque in Tripoli where weekly protests – usually mobilizing several hundred people – are organized against the Assad regime, and the Sidon-based Salafist imam who staged a tense yet peaceful and “illegal” rally in Downtown Beirut this month, verbally tearing into the Syrian authorities and provoking a Baath Party-led counter-demonstration, also numbering several hundred people.
It’s a scene in which Kurdish activists have been more plentiful than Hezbollah in hitting the streets for or against Syria.
Tension over developments in Lebanon’s neighbor means that gatherings remain potentially violent, as when the neighborhoods of Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen in Tripoli exploded last month, sparked by an anti-Assad demonstration.
As for the government, Beirut’s policy of “disassociating itself” from the Syrian crisis has earned the ridicule of March 14 politicians but secured the Cabinet’s survival.
Hezbollah, Amal and the Free Patriotic Movement have adopted a hard-line stance that Syria is the victim of a conspiracy, but this remains a verbal safety valve. In the Arab League and the United Nations, Beirut has opted to abstain rather than vote against resolutions targeting Damascus.
President Michel Sleiman and Prime Minister Mikati have succeeded thus far in dealing with the competing pressures of the Americans and the Syrians when it comes to Beirut’s official stance on resolutions condemning or pressuring Damascus, or cooperation on sanctions against the Syrian regime.
An individual minister, such as the pro-Syrian Defense Minister Fayez Ghosn, might declare that Al-Qaeda fighters based in a Bekaa village are streaming back and forth into Syria, but the claim was walked back by the prime minister, and the Interior Minister Marwan Charbel, who represents Sleiman.
Sleiman and Mikati are managing to remain less vociferous in their support for the Syrian authorities, while the Cabinet has retained the membership of ministers representing the acerbic Walid Jumblatt, who has become more vocal and critical of Assad.
Figures such as Patriarch Rai and the Amin Gemayel-led Kataeb Party are closer to the Sleiman-Mikati stance on Syria, leaving Jumblatt closer to the March 14 coalition, which he dropped out of, along with the Kataeb, prior to the Syrian crisis. However, Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party has yet to announce a desire to return to the ranks of March 14.
For now, members of the executive branch, and the political class, speak in three different voices when it comes to Syria, but this has yet to tear the Cabinet apart. In Lebanon, as in Syria, there appear to be three sizable blocs among politicians, as well as the general public: those who stridently defend Damascus; those who have criminalized the Assad regime; and those who want dialogue, or some other development, to produce a peaceful solution.
Divided among these three stances, Lebanon’s overall policy of watch and wait remains firmly intact on the first anniversary of the Syrian uprising.