It is a wonder that Lebanon has thus far managed to contain the repercussions of the Syrian conflict. Despite the heavy involvement of Lebanese Sunni and Shi`ite factions on either side of the conflict in Syria, spillover effects have been limited to scattered incidents along the porous borders as well as in the flash point city of Tripoli, north of Lebanon.
Yet the involvement of Lebanese Sunni fighters as well as Hezbollah, despite the now-caretaker government’s hollow disassociation policy, is no longer an open secret.
The so-called Sunni lion, Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir has gone from brazenly provoking Hezbollah to calling for Jihad against the Syrian regime. He has even circulated images and footage of himself amongst armed men in Syria. Two other Lebanese Salafi Sheikhs have followed suit. Previously, audio recordings of a Hariri-affiliated parliamentarian effectively taking weapons orders, was leaked. It is believed that Gulf-backed former Prime Minister Saad Hariri has been supporting the flow of money and weapons to the rebels in Syria.
In addition to logistical support, casualty figures have been rising with 21 Sunni jihadists killed in an ambush in Tal Kalakh, western Syria, last December and three men “martyred” last week with 36 others unaccounted for.
On the other side of the spectrum, Hezbollah has been announcing the deaths of its fighters since last summer. In addition to declaring that they would stand by Assad, Hezbollah has justified their presence in Syria by claiming they are defending the Sayyeda Zeinab shrine, as well as what they allege are threatened Shi`ite civilians in border villages.
Still it appears that apart from occasional clashes in the northern city of Tripoli between the Sunni and Alawite communities, ironically divided by Syria street, as well as the laboured formation of a grand coalition cabinet, the battle in Lebanon - for the time being - remains political.
While a protracted civil conflict in Lebanon is unlikely, a clash between Hezbollah and Israel is feasible. The Israeli strikes on Syrian military targets earlier this month and Hezbollah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah’s verbal response may be seen as a harbinger for a direct confrontation. In an attempt to justify Syria’s timid response to the Israeli strikes, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah stressed the Syrian regime’s incessant support for resistance movements in the region and warned that Hezbollah will soon receive “qualitative weapons” from Syria.
This defiant taunt comes weeks after Israel downed a drone off its coast. Unlike Ayyoub, a Hezbollah drone downed last October, they have denied responsibility this time. Israel, meanwhile, continues to violate Lebanese airspace, despite UNIFIL’s pleas.
While a war with Israel is quite possible, there seems to be a will to evade civil strife in Lebanon. However, the vacuum at the executive level, military council and, as of June, on the legislative level, coupled with additional spillover “events” and the rising flow of refugees, may prove too much for this precarious state. Indeed, the Lebanese seem to be tempting fate.