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The Impact of Syrian Uprising on Lebanon

Ten flashpoints that can draw Lebanon into the fight


The impact of the Syrian uprising on Lebanon will be as closely watched as the events in Syria itself. No other two Arab countries have their destinies so closely intertwined, and no country in the region is as divided on the issue of the Syrian uprising as Lebanon.

Syrian regime has dominated its smaller neighbor for most of the past two decades: it has loyal allies and sworn enemies. Here’s a list of developments to watch:

1. Sectarian tension

The crisis in Syria threatens to escalate tensions between and within Lebanon's largest religious communities, all of whom have a complex relationship with Syria's President Bashar al-Assad:

  • Shiites: Overwhelming support for Syrian government comes from the close alliance between Assad and Hezbollah, the main Lebanese Shiite party.

  • Sunnis: A vast majority of Lebanese Sunnis sympathizes with the largely Sunni-led uprising in Syria.

  • Christians: Divided between political parties that rely on Assad's support and those strongly opposed to Syria's influence in Lebanon.

2. Political polarization

In Lebanon, top political posts are shared between the three main religious groups, and the divisive impact of the Syrian uprising will hamper the functioning of the state. The Hezbollah-led governing coalition in power since 2010 has claimed neutrality but voted against UN resolutions condemning Syrian government.

Parliamentary elections in 2013 will be all but dull.

3. Hezbollah’s military power

The stakes are high for Hezbollah which controls the largest and best-equipped armed force in Lebanon. Hezbollah’s supply lines run from Iran through Syria so it’s easy to see why having a friendly regime in power in Damascus is of such vital strategic importance to the Shiite movement.

Unsurprisingly, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah has condemned the uprising in Syria as part of a US-Israeli conspiracy, in turn further alienating many Sunnis across the region.

Read more on reasons for Hezbollah's support for Syrian regime.

4. Northern Lebanon: Syrian rebel base

Meanwhile, Syrian refugees, army deserters and rebel groups stream to the largely Sunni northern Lebanon, where they can count on substantial local support. But pro-Assad Lebanese groups are unlikely to sit back and watch the area become a rear base for Syrian rebels, making northern Lebanon a proxy battleground of the Syrian conflict.

Read more about Syria's armed opposition.

5. Tripoli: Sunni-Alawi tension…

Tensions are running high in the largest northern city Tripoli, between the Sunni majority, which largely backs the Syrian rebels, and the pro-Assad Alawite minority. Lebanon is a small place and whatever happens in Tripoli resonates in the south.

6. …and Militant Sunni Islamism

Mainstream Sunni leaders in Lebanon are secular, but Sunni Islamists hostile to Shiite Hezbollah and Iran are thriving in low-income areas of Tripoli and elsewhere in the north. While most Lebanese prefer to stay on the sidelines of the Syrian crisis, some Islamists head across the border to join the fight against the secular Syrian regime, led by the Alawite Assad family.

7. Weapons routes

It’s not all just politics. Smugglers in impoverished northern areas make a roaring trade selling weapons to ill-equipped Syrian rebels. Supply will meet demand: more weapons, more scramble for profit, more armed young men on both sides of the border.

8. Lebanese army

How long can the Lebanese army remain neutral? Soldiers are ordered to police the border with Syria for smugglers, but arrests of pro-uprising Lebanese Sunni activists have led to growing tension with Sunni communities in the north.

9. Fear of clashes in Beirut

It’s hardly inevitable that the tension in the north would lead to violence in the capital Beirut. Sunni leadership has been careful since the 2008 clashes when Hezbollah fighters swiftly routed Sunni militias in Beirut. As for Hezbollah, it has no interest in war, because the current balance of power in Lebanon is so clearly to its advantage.

But how many civil wars kick-off based on rational calculations?

10. Iran vs. Saudi Arabia

In Lebanon, foreign powers always have a say in the matter. Growing regional tension between Saudi Arabia, which supports Sunni politicians, and Iran, the main ally of Syria and Hezbollah, could ingite that extra spark that sets Lebanon alight.

Read more on Cold War between Iran and Saudi Arabia and why Saudi Arabia supports the Syrian opposition.

Go to Current Situation in the Middle East / Syria / Syrian Civil War
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