Will Syria's Strife Rip Lebanon Apart?

By Khashan, Hilal | Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

Will Syria's Strife Rip Lebanon Apart?


Khashan, Hilal, Middle East Quarterly


The assassination of Lebanese security chief brigadier general Wissam Hassan on October 19 has rekindled fears of renewed confessional strife in Lebanon. The anti-Assad opposition quickly blamed the Syrian regime for eliminating one of its foremost Beirut opponents while enraged demonstrators took to the streets to demand the resignation of prime minister Najib Miqati.1

Yet while the persistence and intensification of the Syrian civil war has undoubtedly amplified Lebanese instability and placed the country's fate on the edge, the assassination is unlikely to "drag Lebanon into the fray."2 Western countries, Saudi Arabia, and Iran are not interested in destabilizing Lebanon, and Syria has lost its ability to manipulate its neighbor's internal affairs.

The table has turned, and it is Syria's time to suffer. Despite their deep ideological divisions, the Lebanese appear to have come of age and learned to prevent their differences from reaching the point of open confrontation.

ECONOMIC COSTS FOR LEBANON

The Syrian conflict has thus far caused greater economic difficulties than political ones for Lebanon, especially in the investment, banking, tourist, and agricultural sectors. Fearing a Syrian spillover, some Persian Gulf entrepreneurs are refraining from investing in the Lebanese market, which depends on these investments to plug its current account deficit estimated at $5.6 billion (or 14.4 percent of the country's gross domestic product).3

According to economist Muhammad Shamseddine, Lebanon has become "Syria's backyard in circumventing Western trade and banking sanctions against it."4 Riad Salame, governor of the Central Bank of Lebanon, acknowledged the adverse impact of the situation in Syria on Lebanese banks, which are by far the country's most important economic sector. He reports that seven Lebanese banks with branches in Syria "have taken provisions based on stress tests of about $380 million in anticipation of loans that could not be repaid."5

Realistically, Beirut cannot completely implement European and U.S. sanctions on Syria since Damascus can retaliate and choke off Lebanon's substantial exports to the Persian Gulf by closing its land borders. In addition, Syria has strong allies in Lebanon who can easily ignore cabinet decisions to comply with the sanctions.

The crisis in Syria and the state of tension in Lebanon have had a negative effect on the latter's tourist sector. Visitors from the Persian Gulf states and Jordan have stopped coming to Lebanon via Syria. A further crippling blow to tourism occurred when angry rioters in the predominantly Shiite suburbs of Beirut threatened to kidnap gulf tourists in response to the abduction of a Lebanese Shiite in Damascus by the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The Gulf Cooperation Council reacted by ordering their subjects to refrain from travelling to Lebanon, causing the loss of seven billion dollars in expected revenues.6

THE POLITICS OF DISSOCIATION

The Assad regime also sought to link the fate of Lebanon to the vicissitudes of the Syrian crisis so as to prevent its transformation into an antiSyrian hotbed. Damascus ruled out the possibility that Saad Hariri would return to the premiership, insisting instead on Miqati's appointment to that post in June 201 1. The Syrian uprising was just beginning at that time, and the Assad regime still held important political assets in Lebanon. But as soon as it became clear that the Syrian uprising was not going to end soon, Miqati opted for officially dissociating Lebanon from the crisis, appealing for Arab countries' help in shoring up Beirut against the untoward developments next door.7

However, the official position of the Lebanese government does not usually mean much in view of its inherent weakness vis-à-vis the disproportionate strength of the major sects. Groups such as the Iranian-created and backed Hezbollah, former Sunni prime minister Saad Hariri's Saudipatronized Future Trend, the anti-Syrian Christian nationalist Lebanese Forces, the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) of maverick Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, and the pragmatic and secularizing Shiite Amai Movement have actually transformed Lebanon into a major regional political actor in relation to this crisis, an unprecedented development that has turned the relationship between the two countries upside down. …

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