Syrian Crisis: Developments and Potential Implications on Lebanon 30 May 2012
by Mustafa Abdel Aziz Morsi

Syrian crisis has taken a serious turn in the last few weeks both in terms of escalation in the regime’s violence against the opposition as well as the spread of tension to Lebanon, which has witnessed sectarian clashes recently. The horrific Houla massacre, which killed 108 civilians including 50 children, marked the climax in the level of violence seen in Syria.

These developments are the result of the continuous festering of the Syrian crisis which has shown no signs of a potential solution and even the plan of the United Nations (UN) and Arab League envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan now appears to be foundering. There is also no alternative plan to peacefully resolve the crisis or put an end to the escalating violence in Syria, which is continuing unbridled in the presence of international observers.

Annan’s efforts to find a solution were tempered in the beginning with a kind of political pragmatism. The UN and Arab League envoy realized that major powers were unwilling to bear the cost of a new military adventure against the Syrian regime in the wake of concerns over prevailing global political and economic conditions. Therefore, he found it appropriate to deal with this complex political problem in a flexible manner. This was clearly reflected in the six-point plan which he formulated to implement the UN Resolution 2043. However, Annan was banking on the Syrian regime’s good intentions and made all efforts possible for his plan to be accepted by those supporting the Syrian regime, particularly Russia and China, which in turn compromised the effectiveness of the plan from the beginning.

However, Annan’s plan to change the course of the Syrian crisis and facts on the ground was accepted by various sides at the beginning. Leaders of the Syrian uprising found some elements in the plan that seemed to provide them with a provisional safety net against the regime’s continuous aggression, in light of the international community’s difference of opinion on ways to cope with the crisis. On the other hand, the Syrian regime saw that it was in its interest, from a tactical point of view, not to reject the plan despite its feeling that the six points it contains might be an attempt to trap it. At the same time it sought to rid the plan of its substance.

The regime saw that the spread of the uprising to various cities in Syria would expose it to further risks. So it resorted to the use of force to curtail demonstrations and exhaust protestors, alleging that it faces terrorist activities. The Syrian regime also found that the continuation of the military operations and bombings would justify blocking the move to implement the remaining five points of Annan’s plan, particularly the item related to the management of the political process in order to reach an agreement on the peaceful transfer of power and the formation of a new authority in which all political forces are represented.

Although the Syrian regime has come under international pressure because of the Annan plan, this has not dissuaded it from continuing its acts of repression against dissidents, as it has been encouraged by the US-Western reluctance to deal with the Syrian crisis. In addition to the ineffectiveness of Arab parties and their conflicting attitudes, the Syrian regime continued to receive unstinted support from Iran along with the political cover provided by Russia and China. On the other hand, the armed opposition adopted guerilla warfare in cities, discomfiting the regular Syrian army which has not been trained for such kind of attacks. As a result, the Syrian army has resorted to indiscriminate killing of civilians in various cities.

The opposition parties have not developed any action plan so far for managing the current crisis. In my opinion, the disagreements and divisions within Syrian opposition forces pose the biggest challenge to the uprising. This would undermine all the opposition’s efforts to bring about the desired change and aggravate the fear of some regional and international powers apart from creating doubt in their ability to take over in the post-Assad era.

In addition, there are fears of infiltration by armed fighters associated with extremist organizations into the opposition, which has made some powers advocating change reluctant to provide the opposition with arms to confront the Syrian regime. The basic challenge which the Syrian opposition faces is to work on ending the differences among its different factions in order to provide an attractive alternative that is credible and acceptable to foreign parties.

The Syrian regime continues to exploit the situation and has been able to drag the opposition into sectarian divisions and sway it from its national dimension. The regime began to raise concerns among minorities over the orientation of religious majority (Sunnis) and promised to protect them. It has realized that maintaining the current position of most Syrian minorities on the crisis will prevent the ongoing ‘revolutionary situation’ from becoming a ‘comprehensive’ revolution.

With the continuance of this critical situation, the Syrian uprising finds itself in a deadlock and it needs urgent outside support to compensate for its losses. In fact, the situation has led both the sides to search for foreign channels to diffuse internal divisions they face. The opposition has sought to obtain the support of neighboring countries and the Friends of Syria Group to offset the regime’s oppressive practices, while the regime has been trying to brew tensions in some neighboring countries that support the uprising. There have been several instances of shooting from Syrian borders in some Turkish areas to divert attention from what was going on in the country. The Syrian regime, however, has accused other regional powers of supporting armed groups and holds them responsible for the continuation of the crisis.

Lebanon has not been spared of such provocations and some areas on the Lebanese-Syrian border have found themselves embroiled in the crisis. These developments have made a quick impact on Lebanon, which was already divided on sectarian and political lines over the Syrian uprising. The city of Tripoli, which has a Sunni majority, has become a base for the Syrian opposition. It is witnessing clashes between armed supporters of the Syrian regime and the opposition that has resulted in several deaths. This has raised fears of Lebanon sinking into the vortex of sectarian violence again.

It is known that the causes of tension and instability existed in Lebanon even before the Syrian crisis. The political divide and conflict between March 14 and March 8 movements has exacerbated since the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005 and the subsequent forced withdrawal of Syrian military from Lebanon. Even before the outbreak of the Syrian crisis, Lebanon had taken a position on the Syrian regime and the international tribunal for Hariri’s killing. When the Syrian crisis broke out, divisions became clearer between March 14 forces (which supported the Syrian opposition) and the March 8 bloc (led by Hezbollah that strongly stood by the Syrian regime).

It is difficult to view tensions that have recently erupted in northern Lebanon separate from the Syrian crisis. The arrest of Shadi Mawlawi, who belongs to an Islamic fundamentalist organization supporting the Syrian revolution, led to a sit-in protest by his sympathizers at Al-Nour Square in Tripoli, which ended only after his release. Tensions flared up again in northern Lebanon between two neighborhoods in Tripoli: Bab Al-Tabaneh and Jebel Mohsen. Things deteriorated further in the aftermath of the killing of Sheikh Ahmad Abdul Wahid and his aide Sheikh Mohammad Hussein Al Mure’b at a checkpoint of the Lebanese Army in Akkar.

Lebanese soldiers were heavily deployed in the area to form a buffer between two venues for events held in the town of Halba. The first event, to commemorate the Massacre of Halba, was organized by the Syrian Socialist National Party which supports Syrian regime. The second event was organized a few meters away by supporters of Lebanese MP Khalid Al Daher (Future Movement) in memory of the ‘May Events Martyrs’. Lebanon faced the dread of security and political instability after the spread of clashes to streets of Beirut and the surrounding areas which is reminiscent of the ‘small war’ between the two groups in 2008.

While the message of His Majesty, Custodian of the two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia to the Lebanese President, expressed concerns over the latest events witnessed in Lebanon, message of the Syrian government to the UN pointed to rise in tensions with Lebanon. Syria pointed to the alleged presence of Al-Qaeda terrorists in Lebanon and smuggling of weapons into Syria from the Lebanese territories. There are now concerns in the Arab region that these developments might usher in instability on a large scale in Lebanon, which cannot be ruled out particularly if the Syrian crisis worsens and turns into a civil war.

The kidnapping of 10 Shiite Lebanese by the Syrian opposition forces in the city of Aleppo, as they were returning from Iran through Syria, has highlighted the threat posed by the Syrian crisis for Lebanon. Some people view the kidnapping as sectarian targeting of Lebanese Shiites as a consequence of their support for the Syrian regime. They warn that if the hostages are not released this could lead to sectarian strife in Lebanon.

The continuation of the Syrian crisis in the absence of a serious move to find a political solution is bound to have dangerous consequences. This would not only affect Syria, which already faces the specter of a civil war, but also for the region, especially Lebanon, which may not be able to withstand the impact of political storms blowing from Syria.

The content herein does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the ECSSR