FRANCE 24 Debate: Could the conflict in Syria push Lebanon over the edge?
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Could the spillover from Syria's civil war push neighbouring Lebanon over the edge? Watch FRANCE 24's special edition of the Debate from the Lebanese capital of Beirut at 7:10pm (GMT +2) Wednesday.
The Syria spillover is for real. The Lebanese felt it long before the country’s militant Hezbollah group announced last month that its forces had actively joined the fight across the border.
One hour’s drive is all it takes to reach the border with Syria from the Corniche seaside in the capital Beirut. But, if the capital seems oblivious to it all, hundreds have been killed and scores more wounded in Lebanon’s second city of Tripoli, where the sectarian divide has long been bitter.
Hardliners are now also squaring off in the Bekaa Valley. But what’s also upsetting the brittle balance of multi-confessional Lebanon is the inflow of more than 500,000 refugees since the start of Syria’s civil war – a figure that’s more than tripled since the start of the year according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. And those are just the official figures.
For Shiite-led Hezbollah, openly joining the war inside Syria is an existential U-turn. What began in 1985 as a resistance movement against Israel is now engaged in battling Sunni-led Syrian rebels.
Hezbollah – whose longtime benefactors are Iran and Syria – has tipped the scales in the bloody reconquering of the key town of Qusair near the Lebanese border, and now threatens to march on Aleppo, the country’s largest city.
Hezbollah’s might seems to have once again dwarfed that of Lebanon’s national army. After last Sunday’s fatal shooting of an anti-Hezbollah protester outside the Iranian embassy in Beirut, President Michel Suleiman had to choose his words carefully after discussions with the ambassador and the head of Hezbollah’s bloc in parliament. Suleiman asked both to help “facilitate the mission of the relevant agencies in uncovering the details and circumstances” of the murder.
Hezbollah – who declined to take part in Wednesday’s special edition of the FRANCE 24 Debate from Beirut – boasts the region’s best trained urban guerrilla force. But did Hezbollah have to cross the Syrian border?
Perhaps the pressure came from Iran, which feels cornered by sanctions and fighting in Syria, or the influx of Sunni and Christian refugees – along with the active support of Sunni radicals from Saudia Arabia and Qatar.
Either way, Lebanon is at risk of becoming the vacant lot where the neighbourhood settles its sectarian differences.
For now, the construction boom in downtown Beirut continues unabated, but the bullet-riddled shell of the old Holiday Inn serves as a reminder of Lebanon’s own civil war.
In hindsight, the recurrence of gun battles in 2008 seem like a political dispute. They didn’t prevent Hezbollah and the March 8 Alliance coalition party from winning parliamentary elections the following year. The current influx of Syrian refugees – which has swelled Lebanon’s population by more than 10 percent – has given rise to suspicion and worry.
“For now, the haunting memory of all those lost years is the deterrent the Syrians don’t have,” said one longtime correspondent who nonetheless fears the worst for Lebanon. “But watch out. Here it’s never one single event that triggers mayhem but a steady drip that quietly fans the flames.”