Lebanon: Caught in Syria’s War

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March 13, 2014

Lebanon is complicated. There’s no other way to describe it. Walking down busy Hamra Street you will see miniskirts and hijabs side by side. Lebanon has 19 official religions. There’s the Lebanese army and then there is Hezbollah. The Lebanese coalition government finally put its pieces in place, but new elections are “scheduled” for May, which gives this government an expiration date of about three month. Yes, it’s a complicated place. But nothing is more complicated – or divisive – than the issue of the war in Syria. Lebanon is deeply spit over this issue which seems increasingly divided between the Shiite and Sunni sects of Islam. Here are some insights about what’s going on:

The Ongoing War in Syria:

For the last three years, resistance forces have been trying to overthrow the Syrian regime, led by President Bashar Assad. In the course of this civil war, more than 140,000 people have been killed, chemical weapons have been used, ancient cities have been decimated and millions of Syrians have fled their country and have become refugees. The war has spilled across the border impacting Lebanon with an influx of refugees, street fights in Tripoli and bombings in Beirut. The official position of the Lebanese government is “non intervention” in Syria. But the Lebanese government isn’t the only player in Lebanon. 

The Hezbollah Factor:

Hezbollah, an extremist Shiite group, supports the current Assad regime in Syria – as does Iran and Russia. Hezbollah has been a force in Lebanon since 1983 and is lead by Hassan Nasrallah. The group holds to a doctrine of “people, plus army, plus resistance” – meaning that it’s essential for them to send militants into Syria. This is at odds with the official government “stay out of Syria” policy. Currently there is a significant rift between Hezbollah and Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, especially after recent and unpleasant verbal exchanges have occurred between the two of them. 

Mohammad Albouazizi, journalist for the daily political newspaper Future, describes Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria this way, “Hezbollah claims that they are defending  Lebanon and the holy places belonging to the Shiites in Syria.  In fact, they are defending the Assad regime, which helps to strengthen their political influence and military presence in Lebanon on religious premises.”  

Mohamad Balbaki, a Hezbollah fighter who has recently returned from his deployment of fighting in Syria states his view very simply: “When Nasrallah says go fight in  Syria, you go. It’s that simple.” 

The Salafist/Sunni Factor

On the other end of the spectrum, you have Salafist and Islamists who have taken control of various neighborhoods in Tripoli, the capital of Lebanon’s north. These extremely conservative Sunni Muslims side with the resistance movement in Syria – and against Assad’s regime. 

I recently met with Salafist leader Sheikh Khaled Zaaroul. He denies sending any fighters into the Syrian theater stating that he doesn’t want any blood on his hands. He believes that the  battle is for ideas, and there is no need for war. His core idea is that of the Umma – the unified Islamic state – a caliphate. 

But others close to the situation disagree, saying that the Sheikh is monied, well-connected, influential and action-oriented when it comes to Syria.  It is the fear of repercussions from the Lebanese government that cause Salafist leaders to be very fearful of stating their true intentions and actions regarding sending militants into Syria. 

When I asked the Sheikh about recent bombings in  Beirut, seemingly aimed at Hezbollah targets, he asserted that Hezbollah is bombing itself. He notes that the bombings mostly take place in areas where there aren’t people and that the deaths that have resulted are incidental. Why would Hezbollah do this? According to the Sheikh, they do it to advance the justification for sending fighters into Syria. 

To believe this, you have to discount the fact that Abdullah Azzam Brigade, a militant offshoot of al-Qaeda has claimed responsibility for the two largest suicide bombs in Beirut – even issuing a rare apology for the unintended deaths of so many civilians. Other bombings have been claimed by the hard-line Sunni Nusra Front in Lebanon – as revenge against Hezbollah’s  support for president Assad in Syria. 

Sheikh Khaled goes further – claiming that the very existence of Hezbollah is for the protection is Israel. That it was created after the 1982 war with Israel – and since that time Israel and Hezbollah have participated in wars of deception – brief skirmishes that go nowhere and mean nothing. He says that if Hezbollah really believed in the doctrine of resistance, they would not take breaks from resisting the existence and occupation of  Israel. 

Al-Qaeda Connection

There are some who believe, including the Lebanese intelligence, that the Salafists of Tripoli are connected with al-Qaeda and that there is a growing presence of al-Qaeda in Lebanon. According to Sheikh Khaled Zaaroul, this is not true – but he reduced al-Qaeda to an “idea” more than an organization at this point – mostly because he says there hasn’t been an effective al-Qaeda leader since Osama bin Laden. The Sheikh especially admired bin Laden for his ability to bring the “poison to the poisoners.” In others words, bin Laden was effective in taking war and destruction to the heart of America, as America had taken war into Muslim lands. 

When I asked him about his view of 9/11, he stated that when he first heard and saw the news footage of the attacks he was delighted to see America assaulted in this way. But within five minutes of seeing what happened, he was no longer jubilant. His change of attitude wasn’t because of the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians. No, it was because now he realized that the US would have more reasons to justify their war against Muslims. 

The Israeli Factor

To the south of Lebanon is the state of Israel. Because of previous wars, occupation issues and the Palestinian matter, Syrian and Lebanon are in a perpetual state of war with Israel. So, what is Israel’s current involvement in the Syrian conflict?

According to Radwan Mortada of Al Akhbar Daily, Israel is probably hoping that the war continues – happy to watch her enemies destroys themselves. He also believes, in his opinion, that if Israel ever wanted to strike and destroy Hezbollah, now would be the time. Hezbollah’s resources are stretched thin because of the Syrian war and, he believes that Hezbollah wouldn’t be able to defend themselves against Israeli aggression. Radwan also believes that in the end, Syria will be divided into two states: one for Sunnis and one for Alawites/Shiites. But, he predicts, even with Syria divided, the conflict will continue – and to the benefit of Israel. 

Currently, however, Israel is increasingly worried about Iran and its ability to produce a nuclear weapon. Israel is also concerned that the US is developing a closer relationship with Iran and with Hezbollah – an organization that the West has deemed a major terror group. If a closer relationship is being formed, it is obviously over issues of cooperation to minimize Sunni terrorist and al-Qaeda threats, which the US views are more dangerous than Shiite terror policies. Politics and wars make strange bedfellows. 

My Lebanese translator, Issa, summed up the conflict with Israel interestingly. According to him,  the whole situation with Israel can be traced to one verse in the Quran (17:7) that promises that in the last days, before the appearance of the Mahdi (the Islamic messiah figure), the Jews will enter the Al-Aqsa mosque (on the Temple Mount) for the second time and it will be freed by Muslims. Eschatological worldviews are very powerful motivators. So, keep fighting against Israel – because your day is coming – your interpretation of the Quran tells you so. 

The Impact on Lebanon

In the end, regardless as to the stated government policy that Lebanon will not involve itself in the Syrian conflict, it IS involved. Whether it likes it or not. Militants are fighting in Syria. Bombs of retribution are going off in Beirut. Tripoli edges closer and closer to a major meltdown.  Upward of a million refugees are now in Lebanon, putting endless strain on Lebanon’s already fragile economy. And there is no end in sight.

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