Teetering but not falling into chaos: Lebanon and the conflict in Syria

By Eric Bordenkircher

For almost a year now, there has been a chorus of voices claiming that the fighting in Syria is beginning to ignite civil conflict in Lebanon. Those voices were heard again two Fridays ago after a car bomb killed a senior Lebanese security official and two civilians. Some media reports claim that the latest act of violence is pushing Lebanon’s tenuous multi-religious state over a precipice and into sectarian conflict, reminiscent of its 15-year bloody civil war. But these interpretations are incorrect. Lebanon’s past will not rear its ugly head again. Violent episodes and tensions between Lebanon’s religious communities are not new; even prior to the Arab Spring they had been periodically occurring. This sporadic violence will continue in the near future, particularly in Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli. But the car bombing two weeks ago and the situation in Syria will not trigger the outbreak of another civil war.

What the world is witnessing today with the periodic violence and tensions in Lebanon is the manifestation of the still present but weakening Syrian veto in Lebanese affairs. However this weakened veto has not allowed Syria’s opponents to run the table. They cannot. This is largely attributable to the fragmentation in the Sunni political leadership of Lebanon. These two somewhat concurrent developments have ultimately prevented the outbreak of another civil war.

Syria has always loomed large in Lebanese affairs. With shared borders and Syrian beliefs that Lebanon was unjustly separated from the Syrian nation, Syrian regimes have historically held the ability to prevent or alter developments — hold veto power— in Lebanese affairs. This veto power in Lebanese politics has been demonstrated by the closure of its border crossings with Lebanon in the 1950s and 60s, the infiltration of Syrian-affiliated Palestinian fighters in the late 1960s and 1970s, to its outright military occupation of Lebanon from 1976-2005. Beginning with the Syrian military withdrawal in 2005, the Syrian veto in Lebanese affairs has waned, ceding ground to the Saudi/Qatari/American veto. No longer able to manipulate most developments inside Lebanon to suit their immediate interests, parity between the Saudi/Qatari/American veto and the Syrian/Iranian veto has been established. As a result, the current situation or status quo will not change. This parity and the maintenance of the status quo will persist unless the Asad regime falls.

If the car bombing was indeed an act of Syria and/or its proxies, it further demonstrates that Syria still has the ability to wager its veto in Lebanese affairs and send a message to its regional enemies that its power and reach has not yet been extinguished. However the waning Syrian veto power in Lebanese affairs only provides half the story to Lebanon’s current predicament of periodic violence but no civil war. The other variable in the equation that prevents the exploitation of the weakened Syrian veto power is the fragmentation in the leadership of Lebanon’s Sunni community.

The political climate of Lebanon’s Sunni confession is increasingly in a state of flux. Following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic al-Hariri in 2005, Hariri’s Future Movement was able to hold a virtual monopoly over Sunni politics. This monopoly began to erode in the parliamentary elections of 2010, the establishment of current Prime Minister Najib Miqati’s government in 2011 and is now being challenged further by more conservative political elements in Akkar, Tripoli, and Saida. While political diversity within confessions is often embraced, in Lebanon it is not always a blessing, especially if you want to change the status quo.

In the Lebanese political system, political competition occurs within the confession and not between them. When a particular figure or party does not maintain a virtual monopoly over the confession, they will be more constrained by the confession’s opinion and their status within the community will be more easily challenged by an opponent from within the community. A political monopoly within a confession in Lebanon allows the leadership to be more demanding in their bargaining or challenging of the status quo and enables it to hold out longer in the bargaining process which ultimately increases the strength of the community’s veto power vis-à-vis the other confession(s). For the Sunni community of Lebanon and its current political struggle, they don’t have this luxury at the moment.

The current domestic political battle in Lebanon is between the Sunni and Shia communities. The Christians of Lebanon have been largely relegated to the status of a third wheel because of reforms to the Lebanese constitution in 1990, the absence of any popular leadership after those reforms for fifteen years and their current political division. Since the Syrian military withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005, Shia politics has been largely monopolized by the political alliance of its two main political parties: Hezbollah and Amal. The domination of this alliance, at least on the surface, is not cracking or eroding. Considering this Shia monopoly and the current Sunni fragmentation, the Sunnis face a predicament in which they cannot really hope to exploit the weakened Syrian veto in Lebanon or effectively change the status quo that is being maintained by the relative unity of the Shia political community. Thus, the current situation of periodic flare ups and tensions in Lebanon will continue.

This predicament is clearly demonstrated by the location of most of the current violence in Lebanon. The Sunni community has not been directly confronting the Shia community in Lebanon. The fighting in Tripoli is between the Sunnis and the Alawites. While the Alawites are considered Shia, they are not from the same branch of Shiism as the partisans of Hezbollah and Amal. Moreover, the Alawites’ representation in the Lebanese parliament is distinct from the Hezbollah/Amal representation and totals a mere two seats. Therefore, this violence has no immediate impact on the Sunni/Shia struggle in Lebanon and is further evidence why this violence has not spread elsewhere.  

A good novelist sometimes cannot imagine the plot twists that occur in Lebanese politics. But given the current political dynamics, the status quo of sporadic violence and tension will endure and Lebanon will continue to teeter on the brink but not fall into chaos.  

Eric Bordenkircher is a PhD Candidate in Islamic Studies at UCLA and currently an affiliate at the American University of Beirut’s Center for Arab and Middle East Studies.