Bleak future for Lebanon as Syria war enters fourth year

BEIRUT: The future outlook for Lebanon is gloomy in terms of its stability, economy and national unity as the war in Syria enters its fourth year next week with no end in sight, political analysts said.

They said that the bloody conflict in Syria has deepened national divisions, heightened sectarian tensions, threatened Lebanon’s security and stability, put the country’s power-sharing pact in jeopardy, and encouraged Al-Qaeda-linked groups to use Lebanese territory to implement their militant agendas.

The war in Syria, which has killed more than 140,000 people and forced millions from their homes, has also left dire consequences on Lebanon’s ailing economy as the cash-strapped country struggles to grapple with the heavy burden of more than 1 million Syrian refugees who have left for safety to Lebanon, the analysts said.

“The political, economic and security situation was badly affected by the war in Syria because we got involved in the war there politically and militarily,” Abdallah Bou Habib, Lebanon’s former ambassador to the United States, told The Daily Star.

He said that Lebanon was also used as conduit to transfer money, weapons and fighters to Syria, further entangling the country into the inferno raging next door.

Citing involvement by Hezbollah and other Lebanese in the war in Syria, Bou Habib, also the director of the Beirut-based think tank Issam Fares Center for Lebanon, said: “We did not pursue the disassociation policy and the Baabda Declaration. Instead, we got involved in the war in Syria and the result is that the country is politically and economically paralyzed.”

He added that the people were worried about the security situation and the threat of car bombings while the turmoil persisted in Syria.

In the absence of a political solution to end the war in Syria, Bou Habib said he expected Lebanon to suffer more from the repercussions of the conflict next door.

“The war in Syria is continuing. There is no light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “Since we did not disassociate ourselves from the war in Syria, the war would affect us adversely for a long time ... As long as the war in Syria drags on, Lebanon will have to pay a heavy price.”

Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, said the political situation in Lebanon was contingent on the end of the conflict in Syria.

“The situation in Syria is exacerbating the political and security issues in Lebanon, but not to the point of an all-over explosion,” Khashan told The Daily Star.

“Needless to say, the Syrian uprising has affected the political and security situation in Lebanon as was manifested by the problem of Cabinet formation and the spate of suicide bombings and frequent rockets fired from Syrian on the northern Bekaa Valley,” he said.

“Despite the aggravation of the political and security situation in Lebanon, and the burden of 1 million plus Syrian refugees, the overall situation in Lebanon, remains under control,” Khashan said, adding: “The extremists are not capable of restarting the Lebanese Civil War, even though Lebanon is in the danger zone. There is no reason, however, to expect a major security breach.”

Sami Nader, a professor of economics and international relations at Université St. Joseph, concurred that the Syrian war was sending dangerous ripples across Lebanon and putting its 1943 National Pact on power-sharing between Muslims and Christians in jeopardy.

“The Lebanese were already split [over Syria’s policy in Lebanon] even before the outbreak of the Syrian uprising [in 2011]. The Syrian revolution has widened this split and exposed Lebanon’s security as a consequence of Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian crisis,” Nader told The Daily Star.

“The response to Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria came from Al-Qaeda-linked groups which have struck deep into Hezbollah’s areas in Beirut’s southern suburbs and the Bekaa region with a wave of car bombings and suicide attacks,” he said. “What’s happening now is a destabilization of Lebanon mainly as a result of Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict.”

Furthermore, Nader said that the Syrian revolt against the regime of President Bashar Assad had “extremely adverse effects” on Lebanon’s power-sharing formula between Muslims and Christians.

“The National Pact concerning partnership in government is at stake and is not holding,” he said.

March 14 parties have long decried that Hezbollah, a key ally of the Assad regime, dominated Lebanon’s political decision-making and had the final say in the previous government of former Prime Minister Najib Mikati.

“The Lebanese government did not close the border with Syria and distance itself in order to shield Lebanon from the repercussions of the crisis in Syria,” Nader said. He added that Hezbollah’s decision to send fighters to Syria to support Assad’s forces has invited Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups to Lebanon.

“The Sunni community along with a large section of the Christian community was already agitated against the Syrian regime in view of what they perceived as Syria’s domination of Lebanon’s political decision-making,” he said.

“These people [Sunnis and Christians] along with Sunni jihadist groups backed the rebels in Syria in the face of Hezbollah’s support for the Assad regime,” Nader said. “The March 14 coalition’s support for the Syrian revolution and Hezbollah’s participation in the war in Syria have further exacerbated divisions among the Lebanese.”

Nader said he expected the “fragile security situation,” including car bombings, to continue in Lebanon until a Saudi-Iranian settlement is reached to defuse spiraling sectarian tensions in the region.

“The future outlook for Lebanon depends largely on a Saudi-Iranian settlement,” he said.

Next week marks the third anniversary of the Syrian war with no end in sight. U.N. efforts are underway to hold a third round of peace talks in Geneva between the Syrian government and opposition groups after two rounds in January and February had failed to make any breakthrough in promoting a political solution to the conflict. The Geneva II talks broke down with the regime insisting on giving priority to “terrorism” that it blames on the opposition, which in turn wanted the peace conference to focus on putting in place a transitional government without Assad.

Mona Fayyad, a writer and a psychology professor at the state-run Lebanese University, said the Lebanese people have been divided in their support and opposition to the Syrian regime since 2005 following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

“The Syrian revolution has sharpened the Lebanese divisions and exposed them clearly. At the political level, the Syrian revolution has caused great dangers. While a group of Lebanese individuals came out in support of the Syrian opposition, a Lebanese party [Hezbollah] that had state authority in its hands joined the fight in Syria at Iran’s request, thus putting the Lebanese state in danger after involving it in the conflict,” Fayyad told The Daily Star.

Fayyad, an outspoken Shiite critic of Hezbollah, said the party’s intervention in Syria had led to the advent of Al-Qaeda-linked groups to Lebanon. “When Hezbollah says that its presence in Syria is to defend Shiite shrines and the Shiites there, this had encouraged Sunni extremists who viewed Lebanon as a fertile ground to achieve their subversive goals.”

“Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria brought hell to Lebanon as well as to the Arab and Muslim world,” she added.

Despite the security threats posed by Al-Qaeda-linked groups which have carried out deadly car bombings and suicide attacks in the southern suburbs and the Bekaa Valley and also against the Iranian Embassy and the Iranian Cultural Center, Fayyad said there was no regional or international decision to start a civil war in Lebanon.

Khashan, the AUB professor, concurred. “The threat of Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups will stay with us as long as the conflict in Syria is raging, but it will not cause the situation in Lebanon to explode,” he said.

“Things may get worse but the worst will not come because the security situation is containable and regional countries and the international community are not interested in causing Lebanon to explode,” Khashan added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 07, 2014, on page 3.




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