Analysis: Risk grows of strife spilling into Lebanon
This week’s killing of several Syrian government insiders may represent a turning point in the conflict.
Assef Shawkat, the former head of military intelligence, had been a pillar of the Syrian regime since the reign of Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez. The deaths are likely to encourage paranoia and infighting within the regime, with various conspiracy theories about who was responsible: the main armed opposition group, the Free Syrian Army; foreign intelligence agencies; or other members of a regime often described as more a mafia than a government.
Likewise, the news was a morale boost to the rebels.
But rather than pushing the parties towards negotiations, the deaths have intensified the fighting, with reports of hundreds dead and up to 30,000 fleeing to Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and even Iraq.
Even if Assad’s days now seem numbered, policymakers remain concerned about state failure in Syria, and worry that a civil war there could spill into neighbouring states – particularly Lebanon. With just over four million people, Lebanon’s population is smaller than Scotland’s, but its strategic location and religious diversity have helped to make it a proxy battleground for other regional conflicts in the past.
Like Syria and Iraq, Lebanon has a delicate religious mix. The image of “sectarian conflict” is sometimes portrayed in the West as if people hate each other because of their beliefs. In fact, most of the time, the various religious groups in Lebanon, like in Syria, have lived together peacefully. But religious identities remain powerful tools when political leaders want to rally support for ideological or strategic purposes.
There have been a few violent clashes in Lebanon in recent months, but for the most part, Lebanon’s often fractious political factions have been doing their best to resist spillover effects from Syria. They know the costs of civil war – the last one raged from 1975 to 1991.
But now many people in Lebanon are nervous – especially given ongoing speculation about an Israeli attack on Iran, in which case Iran would want Hezbollah to retaliate against Israel on its behalf, potentially taking Lebanon into another inter-state war. In the meantime, the resilient residents of Lebanon will probably continue to party hard, smoke too much, and think about options for moving abroad.
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Wednesday 19 June 2013
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