As Syrian Crisis Escalates, Will Lebanon Become the Next Middle East Battleground?

Around 10 months ago, analysts feared the ominous unfolding of events in Syria which has now emerged to haunt the regional security architecture of countries such as Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan. The immediate repercussions of Syria’s uprising on Lebanon culminated in a proactive Islamist awakening and tipped Salafi groups in the predominantly Sunni city of Tripoli in North Lebanon against the state.

The arrest of an Al-Qaida suspect from North Lebanon, the assassination of armed Sunni clergy supporting revolutionaries in Syria by the Lebanese army, and the re-ignition of armed conflict between the pro-Syrian revolution Sunnis and the pro-regime Alawites of Tripoli thrusts Lebanon into the heart of the Syrian conflagration. Lebanon, home to a plurality of sects and ethnicities, cannot take clear stances on unfolding events in the region, let alone the uprising in neighbouring Syria. However, the Islamist resurgence in the countries influenced by the Arab Spring such as Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and possibly Syria have emboldened Islamist groups in Lebanon’s open political system.

It is a novel phenomenon for Islamist groups to make this resurgence in non-repressive states. The growth of these movements in Lebanon implies there may be a regional sponsor financing and orienting the activities of these movements. The detainment and subsequent deportation of a Qatari national suspected to have financed terrorist activities in Lebanon speaks to the involvement of outside Arab individuals in destabilizing regional security. Although there is still no incontrovertible evidence linking regional and Western states to terrorist activities in Lebanon, the assistance which Saudi Arabia and the U.S. gave the Afghan mujahedeen in the 1970s is a sign that there is a precedent for this kind of outside involvement. But again, even if the international community seeks to push regime change in Syria through Lebanon as the middle billiard ball, can Lebanon preserve stability in the midst of change?

The Lebanese government possesses a stockpile of carrots and sticks it should use prudently. The government should launch a set of infrastructure and development projects in rural areas. These projects should aim to link underdeveloped districts of Lebanon with more privileged ones in an economic and social system contingent upon the exchange of ideas. Poverty eradication projects should become a priority on the government’s agenda, thus bridging inequality.

In parallel, the government should practice stringent border control and cut-off the influx of arms to non-state actors. The Lebanese armed forces should preserve internal security by maintaining cross-country checkpoints and enforcing draconian measures on those who breech the laws.

Lebanon should strengthen and persevere its diplomacy initiatives. The government should visit Arab and international capitals more frequently to convey its stance of neutrality and request military provisions for the Lebanese armed forces. The Lebanese President has called for a national dialog on June 11 to defuse tension by debating sensitive topics. However, a more productive gathering would involve civil society, veteran politicians and lawyers, religious leaders, technocrats and education experts to construct a new definition of Lebanese citizenship amidst the tumultuous changes in the region. Any definition would have to cherish democracy, minority rights, and secularist inclinations.