Since mid-March, more than 1,000 people have been killed and thousands more detained in the Syrian regime’s crackdown, the worst elements of which so far have been the killing of a 4-year-old girl by artillery fire and the gruesome mutilation and murder of a 13-year-old boy a few days earlier. Protests that started as calls for reform are now demanding regime change. The al-Assad family, which has autocratically ruled Syria for more than 40 years, is facing the threat of succumbing to a similar end as their fellow Arab dictators. Given Syria’s pivotal regional role in the Levant, especially in Lebanon where its interference in the country’s internal and external affairs was legitimized through the Taif Accord in the 90’s, any change in the Syrian scene is likely to impact Beirut.
Syria is heading towards more international isolation. In a meeting in Turkey, Syrian opposition leaders denounced Bashar’s latest reforms and offers of dialogue, demanding him to step down. Given that Bashar will not easily submit to their demands for fear of losing his power and the privileged position of the Alawite sect, demonstrations are likely to continue and violence by the army is likely to continue or even escalate. It would seem that the current regime in Syria has fought itself into a corner, and intervention by the International community might very well be the only way to end the crisis.
However, the U.S. and the international community have so far been quite hesitant in their actions against the Syrian regime. The recent violent events have led Clinton to change her rhetoric toward Bashar, who she no longer believes will carry out promised reforms. The real question is whether the international community, already stretched by its involvement in Afghanistan and Libya in particular, will be able to mobilize the necessary political will and resources for a military intervention. Considering Syria’s geopolitical position, in relation to Iran and Israel in particular, this is currently far from certain, but at the same time it is clear that there is mounting pressure to do something to end the atrocities.
What does this mean for Lebanon? Many Lebanese fear religious strife spilling over to Lebanon. The escalating violence against Syria’s Sunni community might contribute to that, especially in North Lebanon where there is a delicate balance between the Sunnite and Alawite communities. The flow of Syrian refugees across the border also causes economic problems –Lebanon can barely deal with existing Palestinian and Iraqi refugees as it is. For its part, Hezbollah has encouraged almost all the Arab uprisings in the region, except for Syria’s, and this is decreasing its popular support in Lebanon. A change in the Syrian regime, or even its weakening, could break Hezbollah’s alliance and disrupt its arms trade route to Iran, leaving the party in a delicate position. If the international community intervenes in Syria, Hezbollah and its allies are likely to lose their newly found majority position and Lebanon might witness a shift in the balance of power, in favour of the March 14 coalition.
Given the current political deadlock Lebanon is facing, regardless of what ends up happening in Syria, the crisis is already and will continue to negatively affect Lebanon, at least in the short term