Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Lebanese mood shifts on Syria’s war

There seems no doubt that Hezbollah played a suspect role in the removal of Sheikh Ahmad Assir in Abra. This has angered many Sunnis, understandably so. However, the sense of doom hovering over Lebanon before that showdown has subsided and many Lebanese backed the Army and do not regret Assir’s defeat.

In part this is a reflection of the changing attitude toward events in Syria. Whatever the barbarism of his men, President Bashar Assad has succeeded in redefining the debate over the conflict in his favor. From the outset his regime portrayed the uprising as one led by jihadists, and created the objective conditions ensuring that jihadists would join the fight. This granted Assad the means to pursue a war of eradication, similar to that of the Algerian generals during the 1990s, and rally to his side those fearing Sunni Islamists the most.

Few were duped by Assad’s tactics. They saw clearly that for months his men murdered and tortured unarmed protesters. But this provoked no response from supine Western governments and Assad pursued his policy of repression and radicalization, knowing that jihadists would soon fill the void left by Western unresponsiveness.

This radicalization also had repercussions for the countries surrounding Syria. In Iraq, the government is facing car bomb attacks in Shiite areas on a daily basis, consolidating communal fears and giving Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki the justification he needs to support the Assad regime. In Jordan, fears that jihadist gains in Syria might harm Jordan has forced the regime to play a balancing game: assisting the rebels in line with the policies of the Gulf states, but also setting limits on that assistance, while looking for ways, if possible, to push the Syrian refugee crisis outside the kingdom’s borders.

In Lebanon, the mood is changing decisively against the Syrian uprising – not because of sympathy for Assad, but because there is a perception that the war next door may spread to Lebanon. Making matters worse, the Sunni community, outraged by the way the Army allowed itself to be manipulated by Hezbollah in Abra, is increasingly isolated, as its narrative of events there is in stark contradiction to that of other communities in the country – who believe a radical Salafist provoked the Army and paid a price for his recklessness.

The involvement of Hezbollah in the Syria conflict, while a source of sectarian tensions in Lebanon, has become a fait accompli. The threats by the Syrian opposition to strike back against the party inside Lebanese territory are viewed with alarm by many Lebanese who refuse to be drawn into the fighting next door. Hezbollah benefits from this uneasiness, and some have speculated that the party, realizing this, was behind the recent rocket attack against Shiyah.

Assir’s championing of the armed uprising in Syria, combined with the alarming statements of Syrian rebels on Hezbollah and the fears that Lebanon may be heading toward a sectarian war, has damaged the Syrian opposition. Moreover, arms supplies across the Syrian-Lebanese border have been hindered by the takeover of Qusair and Tal Kalakh and Hezbollah’s effort to break the geographic link between Lebanese Sunni areas and rebels inside Syria.

We got a good sense of the thinking in Hezbollah when its secretary-general, Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, recently invited the party’s Lebanese adversaries to fight Hezbollah inside Syria, not in Lebanon. This was seen at the time as a provocation, a way of daring the Sunni community, who Nasrallah unwisely and insultingly associated with “takfiris.” But in fact it was an accurate reflection of the party’s desire to avert a debilitating civil war in Lebanon.

Ironically, Hezbollah’s inflammatory moves aside, Nasrallah’s call to spare Lebanon is an approach that appeals to most Lebanese, even if Sunnis have interpreted it to mean that Sunni demands inside Lebanon would be sidelined to steer well clear of civil conflict. That is indeed the implicit message in Nasrallah’s rhetoric, and the downside is that it may push Sunnis to follow the lead of their most extreme elements, even though a majority of Sunnis has no patience for the Salafists and Ahmad Assir was regarded as a nuisance by leading Sunni politicians.

With this in mind, continued Sunni mistrust of the Army, albeit understated, may backfire, and will be used by Hezbollah and Syria’s friends to their political advantage. But to Sunni representatives, they’re damned if they do something, and damned if they don’t. The latest indication is that the preference in the Future movement is not to vote for an extension of the mandate of Gen. Jean Kahwagi, the Army commander. If that happens, it could create a momentary alliance between Future and Michael Aoun. But the general reaction will be that Sunni leaders are punishing Kahwagi for the Abra attack, regardless of whether this leaves a vacuum in the Army’s command. It would also discredit Saad Hariri’s call for Kahwagi’s extension, which some Future figures felt should not have been made without getting something in return.

Hezbollah has ignored the decision of Lebanese leaders to stay out of the Syrian conflict. But unfortunately the party is not alone in doing so. As much as we wish good luck to Assad’s foes, Lebanon cannot be drawn into a new war that will destroy the country. If reaching this conclusion helps Assad and isolates the rebels, then so be it, because war is a red line the Lebanese cannot afford to be ambiguous about.

This will not alleviate Sunni anger. The community is paying for the absence of any credible leadership. But Hezbollah faces much uncertainty in its Syrian campaign, and could falter. Exploiting such openings must become Sunni communal priorities, but within the limits of avoiding a war and putting off the temptation to discredit the Army. No one gains from that except Hezbollah.

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