Published in Arabic in NowLebanon on Tuesday, May 23, 2012 and translated to English By Farah Shoucair
In an attempt to regain power in negotiations with the international community, the Syrian regime had threatened to ignite the whole region. This threat can only find resonance in Lebanon; the regime's only “card” at hand. None of the neighboring countries (Jordan, Iraq, Tueky) are accessible to this feeble regime to undertake a political-bloody maneuver that would divert attention away from the Syrian Revolution. The Israeli-Golan Heights front has always been locked-in. And with the withdrawal of Hamas from the Syrian sphere of influence, the Gaza Strip is not receptive anymore. To this end, Lebanon remains the Syrian regime's only available “mailbox” for three main reasons.
First, the fragility of Lebanon's national consensual fabric poses one of the entry points that ease instigating sectarian or political disagreements turning them into violent clashes. This is especially easy for this "regional player", considering its recent history in Lebanon. The Syrian regime has practically ruled the country between 1990 and 2005 and has militarily occupied it during the civil war (from 1976 until 1989). As such, it is most capable of awakening the dormant beast. The pent-up tension and violence have been accumulating since the assassination of PM Rafik Hariri, the May 7 (2008) clashes in Beirut, and sporadic clashes every now and then. These accumulations find roots in the collective memory of the Lebanese, who did not invest in putting an end to all ill-feelings.
Second, the contestation over the leadership of Sunni Muslims is a factor that should not be underestimated. There is no doubt that former PM Saad Hariri and the Future Movement continue to dominate leadership among this sect. Now, irrespective of the political and economic performance of the "Harirism", the reality is that the latter's political discourse does not reflect religious or social extremism disposition. This reality discredits the fabricated Sunni "scarecrow" narrative propagated by the Syrian regime and its Lebanese allies, fallaciously aggravating the growing dominance of Salafism, Wahhabism and (Muslim) Brotherhood in the region. The existence of liberal Sunni political representatives (in the sense that they are sectarian but non-religious) deflate the arguments presented by both those who prefer Hizbuallah (the religious and sectarian) and the authoritarian Assad regime, on the pretext that the latter is waging war against Islamic fundamentalism.
As such, it comes to the benefit of the Syrian regime and its allies, and advocates of the "endangered minority" theory to weaken the "Harirism" at the expense of more radical Sunni movements that are prone to resort to violent actions once targeted.
Third, the North of Lebanon has always served as the Syrian regime's most preferred experimental battlefield for acts of sabotage. Theoretically, Hizbuallah has no physical existence in the North, which neutralizes both the party and Iran from direct confrontations. It is worth noting that the political agenda of Hizbullah and Iran partly overlaps with that of the Syrian official agenda, on top being the Iran's nuclear programme, followed by securing Lebanon's influence and controlling its Southern borders, and lastly, the future of the ruling regime in Damascus.
The above exposition has implications for the potential conflicts in the North, which can take three dimensions. The first dimension is a "Sunni-Alawite" conflict that would open Tripoli's wounds and the old war between the Sunni quarter of Bab al-Tabbaneh and the mainly Alawite Jabal Mohsend, thus mirroring the type of sectarian polarization the Syrian regime is propagating in Syria and its neighborhood. The second dimension is a "Sunni-minority" conflict, through the regime's "secular" allies, whose constituency is partly based on minorities. . Reference here is made to the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party that has a diverse religious constituency base in Akkar, and which was commemorating the memory of victims in the Halba crime at the time Sheikh Abdel Wahad and his companion were killed. Finally, the third dimension is that of a "Sunni-Sunni" conflict, which would not only push the "Harirism" into a contestation with other Islamist movements present in the North, but would also drive PM Najib Mikati into the competitive spiral.
Clearly, in similar cases, the social factors would render the most impoverished player more forceful in contesting its "enemy", thus driving others to follow suite to maintain their status-quo.
The three dimensions exemplify the materialization of the Syrian regime's propaganda for the region, making use of pro-regime Lebanese media outlets’ cheap policy of inciting hatred and sectarianism and of lightly ascribing extreme Salafisim to individuals and groups.
What preventive measures ought to be taken to contain the escalating situation?
Preaching is of course pointless. Those who are directly concerned should realize the gravity of the responsibility, from ensuring a serious investigation and holding any criminal accountable, be it a military personnel, to removing the political cover away from any militarized person in the street. Equally important is the deployment of Lebanese army and internal forces, granting them full support to security undertake their strictly mission. Additionally, there are other issues that, if addressed, would ease the tension, such as putting an end to the Islamic inmates detained for years without legal charges or trial. Citizens should also join forces by forming popular committees, bringing together party representatives, parliamentarians, representatives of municipal councils, and civil society activist to enhance efforts to contain such tragic incidents and its spillovers. The biggest part of the responsibility lies on the shoulders of opponents to the Syrian regimes who are concerned with maintaining stability and peace in the country. Opponents of the Syrian regime and supporters of the Syrian revolution should be wary of falling into the "Salafist attack" trap sneakily woven by the Syrian regime. This calls upon all to double the efforts and to assume the responsibility of transparently informing the public of their policies and actions.
The aforementioned short-term measures are not guaranteed to succeed. Yet they deserve to be genuinely initiated by all those who are concerned with their country's stability and who condemn violent conflicts. On the long-term, the only solution to structurally address the Lebanese dilemma is to delve into re-building state institutions, identifying its mission and governance, and philosophical foundations. In that regard, the electoral and nationality laws, decentralization, the independence of the judiciary and the exclusive monopolization of armament are important cornerstones.
Anything less than what is proposed here would render the country prone to internal fragilities and manipulative external forces. This is even more pressing given the current severe divisions between societal and political segments, erosion of the rule law, and the existence of a "local" military apparatus stronger than that of the state.