In recent days, the regime of President Bashar Assad has suffered significant setbacks in northern Syria. This may not be the end, but it only affirms that the dynamics of the conflict are being driven by the armed opposition, so that for the first time since March 2011, Assad rule appears to be decisively shaken, not to say terminally ill.
From a Lebanese perspective, the greatest danger will come once the battle in Syria is over. Lebanese Sunnis will feel triumphant, and legitimately so, after decades when they were regarded as a threat by the Assad regime. Their sense of renewed empowerment, in parallel with that of their brethren in Syria, could make them overconfident. This in turn could bring them into confrontation with an increasingly fearful but still militarily potent Lebanese Shiite community, led by Hezbollah. Managing this phase properly will require mechanisms of compromise and dialogue to avert the worst.
The problem is that for Sunnis, the removal of the Assads will represent a seminal moment. For decades, Sunnis have seen their powerful communal figures fall or marginalized. Rafik Hariri was assassinated, as was the mufti of the Republic, Sheikh Hassan Khaled, and other clerics, allegedly by Syria or their allies. Damascus sought to limit ties between Sunnis and their traditional regional reference points. The Syrian fear was that a resurgent Sunni community in Lebanon would give dangerous ideas to their brothers in Syria, in that way weakening the hold of the Alawite-dominated regime. Hariri’s elimination in 2005 could be well understood in this context.
The withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon that year did not immediately ameliorate matters. Hezbollah responded to the so-called Cedar Revolution with poorly concealed contempt. The party mouthed the necessary words about Hariri, while all the time doing its best to derail an international investigation of the crime – a crime, it now appears, in which Hezbollah members participated.
In 2006, after provoking an unnecessary war with Israel, Hezbollah went further, hoping to use its self-declared victory as a lever to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. For 18 months Hezbollah and its partners held a sit-in in the downtown area, destabilizing Lebanon and exacerbating Sunni rancor. This interregnum ended in May 2008, when the party’s gunmen and their partners, in response to a government decision to investigate Hezbollah’s illegal telephone network, overran western Beirut and humiliated the Sunnis, in the process killing dozens of people.
Hariri was trapped in his mansion, but would later tell me that he had avoided a political explosion by not calling for help from his Sunni followers outside Beirut. That was true. Hezbollah’s massive firepower neutralized its foes, but a call to arms from Hariri, which would certainly have ended up being clothed in sectarian language, would have been a catastrophe of unheard of proportions.
The Sunnis understandably never digested this violence done to the unwritten rules of the Lebanese sectarian system. When the equilibrium is undermined and one side gains the upper hand, especially through arms, the consequence is that the other side begins to accumulate weapons as well. As we saw on the night of Wissam al-Hasan’s funeral, Sunni groups in Tariq al-Jadideh have guns, even if their arsenal is nothing like Hezbollah’s. It doesn’t take much to start a war, and in war acquiring more weapons is easy.
Equally worrisome is that there is fragmentation in the Sunni community. Saad Hariri has been out of the country for a year and a half, creating large openings for others. The person who has benefited the most is Prime Minister Najib Mikati. More ominously, so too has the Salafist Sheikh Ahmad Assir in Sidon. Assir has criticized Hariri for his absence, and has loudly condemned Hezbollah. Earlier this month, there was a clash in Sidon between Assir’s partisans and Hezbollah, followed by a promise from Assir that he would form a militia, though he later said he would delay this.
If anyone is reassured by this purported delay, they should not be. The default setting of a populist firebrand like Assir is to enhance hostility, to rally more supporters. The sheikh has both discredited March 14 by declaring it ineffective and drawn on the deep reservoir of resentment among Sunnis against Hezbollah and its arrogance. This is a volatile mix, pushing Hariri and March 14 to stake out a hard-line position on national politics after the Hasan killing, in order, partly, to retain the allegiance of the Sunni street.
Yet there are signs of fraying. March 14 has little say over Assir, and it had little say over the armed groups that took over Tariq al-Jadideh and sought to provoke clashes with Shiite parties in nearby Barbour. Like the fighting in Sidon, this was a portentous moment for Lebanon, one too soon forgotten by many Lebanese. That is why Hariri can no longer delay his return. He has to regain control over his community and offer an alternative to warfare.
Presumably, the former prime minister will be on the first airplane back to Beirut after the collapse of the Assad regime. His primary aim must be to come to an agreement with his Sunni rivals first, before initiating a dialogue with Hezbollah and finding practical ways to avoid friction in the street. Hariri’s mantra must be the strengthening of the Lebanese state, which requires him to speak as one alongside President Michel Sleiman, Najib Mikati and Walid Jumblatt. It may be personally difficult for him to talk to Hezbollah, but the former prime minister has to remember that the future is his once the Assads go, and that political power will derive from his ability to manage the relationship with the party in a way that reassures the Lebanese.
When high expectations transcend the capacity of a political system to absorb the consequences, instability follows. We’ve learned this on countless occasions in Lebanon. Prepare to learn it again.
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling.