Tuesday, March 5, 2013

'Spillover' to remain limited, for now

[Originally posted at NOW]

Though the prospect of Syria’s war ‘spilling over’ into Lebanon is often presented as a mere hypothetical, in actual fact the phenomenon has for some time been a fait accompli. On more than a dozen occasions in recent years, events next door have prompted Tripoli’s mostly Sunni, anti-Assad Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood to go to war with its chiefly Alawite, pro-regime Jabal Mohsen neighbors. Yet when a Free Syrian Army (FSA) official in Homs called on Lebanese Sunnis to undertake military operations against Hezbollah on Lebanese soil last week, he fuelled concerns that a hitherto localized Sunni-Alawite feud could grow into nationwide Sunni-Shiite clashes.

Such fears were only compounded when the FSA claimed Tuesday to have killed several Hezbollah militants near Damascus, adding to the three Lebanese Shiites reported killed earlier in the month, that rebels claim were also members of the pro-Assad party. Only a day before, a gathering of Sunni and Shiite notables in the Baalbek-Hermel district had called on Hezbollah to stop fighting in Syria in order to avoid “dragging Lebanon to war.” Hezbollah denies it is sending fighters into Syria.

However, analysts argue there are good reasons to expect ‘spillover’ from Syria to remain limited for the time being. For one thing, it is in the interest of both the regime and the opposition to keep the fight on Syrian soil, according to Riad Kahwaji, founder of the Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA).

“Anything is possible, because you cannot control the flow of events in times of war. But I think so far there’s been a strong effort to keep it contained within Syria,” he told NOW. “We’ve seen Hezbollah and other Lebanese [opposition] parties resist doing anything that could put [them] in a war situation inside Lebanon.”

This dynamic, said Kahwaji, is reinforced by the control exerted by each side’s regional backers – Syria and Iran, in Hezbollah’s case, and Gulf monarchies in the opposition’s. “With Lebanese Sunnis trying to lend a hand [by passing] on supplies to the rebels, and Hezbollah working for the regime, it might appear as if it is the Lebanese fighting a war by proxy in Syria. But the truth is both the Sunni parties and Hezbollah are themselves proxies to regional powers, which are using Lebanese tools to fight their proxy war in Syria.”

Syrian opposition activist Maher al-Esber concurred, telling NOW that Lebanese Sunnis and the FSA in general had “no interest in fighting Hezbollah in Lebanon.” Esber also cast doubt on the authenticity of last week’s call for Lebanese Sunnis to fight Hezbollah, saying the group issuing the statement was not authorized to speak on behalf of the FSA.

Others argue the likely terrible consequences of an all-out Sunni-Shiite war in Lebanon suffice to dissuade parties from launching one. “The fact that Syrian refugees in Lebanon have been spread out throughout the country – among Shiite populations in the south and in Dahiyeh, in the [mainly Druze-populated] Shouf, in [largely Christian] Mount Lebanon, and in the [mostly Sunni] north – tells you that a Sunni-Shiite armed fight in Lebanon would be devastating for all sides, and this acts as a preventative factor against such a sectarian outbreak,” said Dr. Imad Salamey, professor of political science at the Lebanese American University.

Salamey added that sectarian incitement would ultimately be of limited efficacy in what he argues is still principally a political, not religious conflict. “The struggle in Syria remains primarily one between a ruling government with different sectarian composition – mostly Alawite but with different groups, including Sunnis – and an opposition that is cross-sectarian, even if most armed groups on the ground may have Sunni religious affiliation. The struggle has not gone fully sectarian, and this to a large extent helps prevent a sectarian spillover into Lebanon.”

Nevertheless, Salamey believes, “the longer this conflict goes on, the more sectarian polarization it will entail. Therefore […] the Syrian crisis has serious potential to spill over into Lebanon.”

Kahwaji, too, cautioned that sectarianism could yet overcome the factors that have thus far insulated most of Lebanon from the carnage raging next door. “Sectarian wars can easily be started. The historical differences and cracks within the region are still very much there,” he told NOW.

“It would not take much effort to reignite these old flames.”

Yara Chehayed contributed reporting.

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