Analysis

Syria Conflict Pushing Lebanon to the Brink of a Civil War

Hezbollah’s success in Syria has extracted a price in Lebanon. Criticism of the organization increased, as have efforts by Sunni extremist groups to settle accounts with the Shi'ites.

Here is a partial list of events in Lebanon over the past two months: A car bomb outside the Iranian Embassy in Beirut killed 23 people; a senior Hezbollah official and a former cabinet minister from the rival, Sunni Muslim and Christian camp were assassinated in two separate incidents; a Sunni soldier in the Lebanese army shot dead an Israeli soldier near Rosh Hanikra; a Sunni extremist organization fired Katyusha rockets at the Galilee panhandle; the leader of that group died under questionable circumstances in a Lebanese prison; and a car bomb exploded in Beirut’s Dahiya quarter, killing six people. The latter three incidents occurred in the past week.

The deterioration in relations among Lebanon’s religious and ethnic communities follows months of armed combat, primarily in the north, and is mainly due to the prolonged and bloody civil war in Syria. Lebanon has taken in an estimated 500,000 to one million Syrian refugees (the government does not issue official figures). In addition, it is contending with the open efforts of radical jihadist factions within the Syrian rebel movement to move part of the war into Lebanon. And for a year now, thousands of Hezbollah militants have been stationed in Syrian territory. Not satisfied with defending the Assad regime’s strongholds, they are taking an active role in offensive operations.

According to U.S. and British media reports, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah increased the organization’s involvement in the Syria civil war on the request of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Iranian aid in the form of arms, intelligence and Hezbollah militants have been critical for Syrian President Bashar Assad. The regime and its supporters were able to deflect the advance of the rebels, even as newly empowered organizations affiliated with Al-Qaida fragmented and in effect paralyzed the opposition camp. Assad, for now, has survived.

But Hezbollah’s success in Syria has extracted a price in Lebanon. In 2013, an estimated 350 Hezbollah combatants died in Syria. Criticism has increased in Lebanon of the Shi’ite organization, as a puppet of Iran and Syria, as have efforts by Sunni extremist groups to settle accounts with Hezbollah. According to Israeli intelligence assessments, Lebanon is nonetheless likely to avoid being plunged into its own civil war: The scars of the 1975-90 conflict are too fresh to permit it.

Israel, for a change, is not overly involved in Lebanon’s business. It has been blamed in some quarters for the assassination a month ago of senior Hezbollah commander Hassan al-Laqis, but the claims seem to have been lost in the general chaos. And Israel’s response to two recent incidents along the Lebanese border was relatively restrained.

The ongoing smuggling of weapons from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon remains, however, a potential point of contention. According to weekend reports in the U.S. media, Assad succeeded in moving to Lebanon parts of the Yakhont advanced anti-ship missile system. Last year, according to foreign reports, there were at least six Israeli strikes in Syrian territory that were aimed at preventing such smuggling.

Saudi aid, Hariri murder trial

Meanwhile, there have been two more two significant developments: Saudi Arabia has announced that it will provide $3 billion of security assistance to the Lebanese government, most of which will be used to purchase weapons and intelligence from France. And on January 16, the trial begins in the Hague of four senior Hezbollah figures accused of murdering former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The four, including Mustafa Badr al-Din, the brother-in-law of former Hezbollah chief of staff Imad Mughniyeh, will be tried in absentia by the International Court. The revelations expected in the case once the trial begins are even further increasing the tension in Lebanon.

None of this directly affects Israel, but it does focus Jerusalem’s attention to what’s going on in Beirut. The Syrian civil war has already proved to be the largest source of regional instability; while Lebanon is the most influenced, the war has also affected Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey. Israel, too, is not necessarily immune from harm.

AP