Spectre of the Syrian spillover haunts Lebanon

It was only a matter of time before Hezbollah would also join in the fight out of loyalty to a regime dubbed by David Hirst its “midwife”, as well as in an effort to protect its supply routes.

Sarah El-Richani
25 February 2013

As Syria’s “sectarian... radicalised and militarised” conflict rages on, Lebanon’s chances at dodging both the literal and figurative bullets continue to dwindle. 

In addition to the recurring and sometimes-deadly scuffles in Tripoli between the largely Sunni neighbourhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh and the Alawite neighbourhood of Jabal Mehsen, ironically divided by Syria street, the FSA ultimatum last week threatening to attack Hezbollah in Lebanon if they don’t cease their “invasion” is a harbinger of darker days to come.

Hezbollah has denied claims it has offered Syria more than its rhetorical support despite reticently announcing the deaths of its members beginning in the summer of 2012.

However, it was only a matter of time before Hezbollah would also join in the fight out of loyalty to a regime dubbed by David Hirst its “midwife”, as well as in an effort to protect its supply routes.

In light of the porous and in some areas non-existent borders, as well as the interconnectedness of both populations, elites and regimes, the intervention of all the factions in Syria was inevitable, despite the weak state’s “disassociation policy”.

The Lebanese Sunni “intervention”, backed by Gulf states, has long been providing the FSA with weapons, aid, refuge as well as fighters.  In addition to leaked audio tapes of a Future Movement MP allegedly taking weapons’ orders from militants in Syria, which he vociferously denied, claiming the tapes had been tampered with, there was the ambush in Tal Kalakh, Syria, which left a group of 21 young Salafist men from northern Lebanon dead.

Yet another incident reflecting the primarily Sunni/Shiite festering divide vis–à–vis the Syrian conflict was the ambush targeting a Lebanese army unit in ‘Arsal in early February.  The residents of the border town north east of Lebanon are said to have ambushed the army unit as it attempted to arrest a fugitive on terrorist charges, alleging links to the al-Nusra Front, which is fighting in Syria. Two soldiers and the suspect were left for dead and other injured servicemen were beaten. The mayor of ‘Arsal initially claimed that they had assumed it was a Hezbollah set-up as the servicemen were in civilian vehicles and clothing. This was later refuted with the broadcast of graphic videos showing uniformed soldiers transported to the municipality. Hezbollah also denied any involvement.

Meanwhile, a Lebanese military judge last week argued for the death penalty for former Minister Michel Samaha, who was arrested in August 2012 for allegedly plotting attacks in Lebanon on arms smugglers, FSA fighters as well as any Lebanese MPs or Sheikhs who may happen to be present. Wissam al-Hassan, a former Hariri aide and senior security official , who was later assassinated,  was credited with arresting Samaha.  

The sheer entanglement here also has a humanitarian side to it, with the 10 Shiite sexagenarian pilgrims still held in Syria, and the pouring of refugees, estimated by the UNHCR to have reached 300,897, into an ill-prepared and sometimes-xenophobic Lebanon.

While the series of inevitable spillover incidents that have befallen the small nation have thus far been relatively contained, it remains to be seen how much longer the apparition of fitna can be avoided/evaded.

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