Thursday, August 29, 2013

Syrian crisis poses many questions for Lebanon

Lebanon has suffered a spate of bomb attacks, most recently in Tripoli. That is why Lebanese are wondering how an American attack on Syria, in retaliation for the Al Assad regime's use of chemical weapons near Damascus, will affect dynamics in their own country.

The bomb attacks were almost certainly tied to the Syrian conflict. Two devices were detonated in Beirut's southern suburbs, a Hizbollah stronghold, apparently in response to the party's deployment of combatants in Syria to bolster President Bashar Al Assad. Last week, a devastating double bombing killed dozens of worshippers at mosques controlled by Salafis in mainly Sunni Tripoli.

The interpretation in Lebanon was that this constituted Hizbollah's response to the earlier bombings. It was an effort to strike a devastating blow against those whom the party considered to have planted, or harboured those who planted, the bombs in Shia areas.

In this reading, the Tripoli bombings were designed to impose a balance of terror and avoid further bombings in the future, rather than aiming to exacerbate sectarian tensions, Hizbollah wanted to avoid a descent into generalised sectarian violence, since the party's gains would be undermined by a Sunni-Shia war in Lebanon.

This makes sense, even if a contradiction lies at the heart of Hizbollah's calculations: the party's actions are more likely to heighten sectarian animosities and provoke further Sunni ripostes than the contrary. However, neither Hizbollah nor the Salafi movement is wired to think in terms of compromise, so their principles tend to drive them toward escalation.

The signs that the United States intends to strike soon against the Assad regime have raised the anxiety level in Lebanon. There are those who believe that a bombing campaign that shifts the military balance against Mr Al Assad would weaken Hizbollah and Iran, for whom the political survival of the Syrian president is a strategic objective.

Hossein Sheikholeslam, who heads the Iranian parliament's international affairs committee, has said that "the first victim of an attack on Syria will be the Zionist regime." Mr Sheikholeslam indicated that it was the Syrians who would hit back at Israel, not Hizbollah, but the linkage was clear: what happens in Syria risks spreading across the borders to include others.

However, that could be posturing. In reality, much will depend on the aim and scope of American military action. If the Obama administration intends to initiate a sustained campaign that ultimately leads to the downfall of the Assad regime, the stakes will be higher on all sides, and the actions of Mr Al Assad's allies, such as Iran and Hizbollah, more far-reaching and dangerous.

Yet reports this week in The Washington Post suggested that Barack Obama was considering a limited military operation. Senior administration officials spoke of an attack that "would probably last no more than two days and involve sea-launched cruise missiles - or, possibly, long-range bombers - striking military targets not directly related to Syria's chemical weapons arsenal …"

In that case, we can expect little change in Syria. As Eliot Cohen, an academic and former member of the Pentagon's Defence Policy Board during George W Bush's presidency, observed, if the plan is for "a futile salvo of cruise missiles, followed by self-congratulation and an attempt to change the topic [then it] would not work here. A minority regime fighting for its life, as Bashar Al Assad's is, can weather a couple of dozen big bangs".

To grasp what the Americans are thinking, one should understand Mr Obama's motives. It seems grotesque that 100,000 dead have not aroused American moral outrage to a significant extent but that the administration should now react to a relatively limited chemical weapons attack so forcefully, no matter how justified this is. Yet the primary intention appears to have more to do with Israel than Syria.

Recall that when American officials first expressed their worries about Syria's stockpiles of chemical weapons, they did so principally out of a fear that such weapons might fall into the hands of groups that would use them against Israel, among others. By responding militarily, Washington hopes to create a credible deterrent and dissuade anyone from firing such weapons against its Israeli ally.

But neither Mr Al Assad, Iran, Russia or Hizbollah is foolish. Given that the Obama administration is already leaking to the media that its objectives may be limited, the greater possibility is that all sides will simply duck and allow the United States to make a show of it - while ensuring that the opposition does not take advantage of the consequences -before returning to business as usual afterwards.

If that scenario plays out, then Hizbollah will contain its response while continuing to assist Mr Al Assad and keeping the domestic Lebanese scene under relative control. But if Mr Obama is seen to be influencing military outcomes in Syria, then Iran and the party will react differently and are likely to look toward widening the conflict, to make it untenable for the United States.

Mr Obama still desires a diplomatic solution to Syria's conflict, but fears that too extensive a military campaign may lead to Mr Al Assad's downfall, leaving a dangerous vacuum in Damascus. After making his point, he will want to return to organising a peace conference with Russia for a negotiated transition in Syria. Many will be disappointed by Mr Obama's minimalism, but he has often disappointed on Syria.

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