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Syria turmoil puts Lebanon on brink of chaos

Shi'ite masked gunmen from the Meqdad clan, gather at the Meqdad family's association headquarters in the southern suburbs in Beirut, August 15, 2012. (REUTERS/Khalil Hassan)

BEIRUT: Despite repeated Arab and international warnings over a fallout of the 17-month uprising in Syria spreading to Lebanon, the Syrian turmoil has spilled over into the politically divided country, threatening to plunge it into total chaos, analysts and political sources said Thursday.

“The spillover of the Syrian uprising has reached Lebanon,” Hilal Khashan, professor of political sciences at the American University of Beirut, told The Daily Star. “Lebanon is poised for heightened insecurity that falls short of a civil war, mainly as a result of the spillover of the Syrian unrest, into the country.”

Wednesday’s mass kidnappings of over two dozen Syrians, a Turkish national and a Saudi citizen by a local Lebanese clan in retaliation for the abduction of one of its kinsmen by Syrian rebels as well as the blocking of Beirut airport road and the Beirut-Damascus highway at the Masnaa border crossing with burning tires by rival protesters have revived memories of the chaos and anarchy that reigned during the 1975-90 Civil War when rival militias held sway at the expense of state authority.

During the Civil War years, lawlessness and insecurity prevailed, especially in the capital Beirut, where foreign citizens of various nationalities were kidnapped by militant groups.

In response to security threats, five Gulf states, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain, have urged their citizens to leave Lebanon immediately after the Meqdad Shiite clan kidnapped more than 20 Syrians in Beirut and initially threatened to seize more Arab nationals in retaliation for the abduction of Hassan Meqdad by Syrian rebels.

The mass kidnappings of Syrians, directly linked to the turmoil in Syria, cast further doubts over Lebanon’s ability to weather the storm in its eastern neighbor Syria.

“What happened today is a clear indication that we are [on] the brink of major chaos in Lebanon,” a senior political source told The Daily Star Thursday.

“The storm in Syria has reached Lebanon now and there is no going back,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

However, Khashan said he did not believe that Lebanon was drifting into total chaos following the wave of kidnappings and the appearance of masked gunmen on TV.

“The kidnappings were a tension relief exercise. Hezbollah controlled the Shiites. There is no logical reason for them [Hezbollah] to allow the situation to go out of the control,” Khashan said. “Level headedness will prevail.”

“What happened yesterday was an expression of anger and frustration. The sight on TV of the Free Syrian Army displaying Hassan Meqdad, whom the FSA accused of being a Hezbollah member, with bruises on his face, angered many Hezbollah supporters. The kidnappings were [designed] to vent their spleen,” he added.

However, Future MP Ahmad Fatfat had a different opinion. “What happened was a total collapse of the state and a flagrant inability of the Army and security forces to do their job in repulsing any attack, even an internal attack, on Lebanese sovereignty,” Fatfat told the Voice of Lebanon radio station.

“The attack and kidnappings that took place in Beirut and a number of areas meant that the state was absent. This takes us to a civil war,” he added.

Khashan said that there was no regional or international decision to rekindle civil war in Lebanon. “Iran and Arab Gulf states do not want a civil war in Lebanon,” he said.

A similar view was echoed by political analyst Talal Atrissi.

“I don’t think Lebanon is facing the threat of a civil war following the wave of kidnappings,” Atrissi, an expert on Iran and Middle East affairs, told The Daily Star. “There is no internal, regional or international decision for the security situation to spin out of control. Priority is now for Syria. Therefore, no civil war in Lebanon,” he said. “Regional and international powers are still supporting Lebanon’s stability and security.”

Atrissi said the root cause of the current tension in Lebanon was the kidnapping by Syrian rebels of 11 Lebanese pilgrims in May and Meqdad last week.

“Before the spate of kidnappings, tension with Syria was confined to border incidents,” he said.

Politicians and analysts have long held the view that Lebanon’s security and stability are intertwined with Syria’s security and stability.

Violence in Syria has often spilled over into Lebanon, jolting the country’s already fragile security situation, with cross-border shootings, shelling by the Syrian army, tit-for-tat kidnappings and sectarian clashes. Several Lebanese have been killed and wounded by Syrian gunfire in a series of deadly incidents on the Lebanese-Syrian border in recent months.

But the latest spate of kidnappings has fueled fears that the unrest in Syria could further destabilize Lebanon, which has struggled for decades with wars, sectarian strife and a weak political system.

The split between the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance and the opposition March 14 coalition over the Syrian crisis has raised fears of the turmoil in Syria spilling over to Lebanon.

The U.S. has also expressed consternation. “Our concern in Lebanon, first and foremost, has been the spillover from the Syrian conflict and the fact that the sectarian tensions in Syria are potentially being replicated in Lebanon,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters in Washington.

The government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati has adopted a policy to dissociate Lebanon from the repercussions of the unrest in Syria.

Mikati condemned the kidnappings, but his government seemed largely powerless to act. “This brings us back to the days of the painful war, a page that Lebanese citizens have been trying to turn,” he said of the 1975-90 Civil War when Western hostages were seized by armed groups.

Implicitly admitting his government’s inability to act, Mikati called for the formation of an extraordinary government to cope with what he termed the “difficult and extraordinary” situation through which the country was passing.

“This is a battle for Lebanon’s survival. We have to protect Lebanon with all the strength we have.” Mikati told reporters before a Cabinet session at Beiteddine Palace. “We are living in the storm. Therefore, we have to close ranks to face problems and crises.”

Atrissi blamed the Mikati government for weakening state authority and preventing the Army from imposing law and order. “Political and sectarian interests inside the government are preventing the Army from imposing security and state authority,” he said.

Khashan, the AUB professor, said Lebanon is “a soft state.”

“Security has long been based on consensus. The state cannot impose security on the people. Security is achieved through negotiations and compromise,” he said. “The Lebanese state is not authoritative. Rather, it is a soft state.”

Khashan said that instability in Lebanon served the cause of both the Syrian regime and the rebel Free Syrian Army for different reasons and motives.

“The Syrian regime wants to destabilize Lebanon in order to export its problems to the region. Lebanon is the weakest link in the region,” Khashan said. “Likewise, the Free Syrian Army believes that instability in Lebanon will invite Western intervention in both Syria and Lebanon,” he added.

The Meqdad clan, which hails from east Lebanon’s Bekaa region, said Wednesday it kidnapped over 30 men it said were members or supporters of the FSA in retaliation for the abduction of one of its kinsmen.

Maher Meqdad, who said his family fields an armed wing, told The Daily Star Wednesday that his clan had taken matters into its own hands as the Lebanese government had taken no steps to free Hassan Meqdad.

“We will do it ourselves, and we have what you can call a regulated army to do the job,” he said. He added that his family was acting according to the “eye for an eye” principle, and no longer needs the government’s intervention.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 17, 2012, on page 3.

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