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The Syrianization of Lebanon

In the past I’ve used the term Lebanonization to describe what’s happening in Syria, referring, of course, to the internationalized sectarian bloodfest of the Lebanese civil war. The term Lebanonization, though, is becoming outdated. Lebanon’s civil war killed more than 100,000 people, but it ended in 1990. Syrianization works better now, not only because it’s more current, but because it describes a phenomenon that’s spilling beyond the borders of Syria.

Two years ago, Syria became Lebanonized. Today, Lebanon is becoming Syrianized.

This isn’t a word game. Armed clashes have been breaking out in Lebanon for the last two years, and they’re all directly related to, and indirectly caused by, the Syrian civil war raging next door. Sunni and Alawite militias have been battling it out in the northern city Tripoli, mirroring the war between Sunni militias and the Alawite-dominated government and army in Syria. And the fighting heated up drastically in late May.

In the last week alone, more than 1200 mortar rounds and rockets exploded in Lebanon’s second-largest city, killing dozens. It’s rather extraordinary that so “few” could be killed in a densely populated urban environment by such a large number of explosions, but the fighting is concentrated in a relatively small area where Sunnis and Alawites live in adjacent neighborhoods, neighborhoods which civilians can and will quickly flee when explosives start falling out of the sky.

The fighting was so intense that the Lebanese army, which normally (and absurdly) steps out of the way of such confrontations, rushed in and assaulted the combatants with heavy machine gun fire.

Tripoli looks and feels large when you’re in the middle of it because it’s dense and it’s because it’s built vertically, but only a half million people live there. It’s smaller than the Boise metropolitan area. Imagine how much physical and emotional shattering would occur after so many explosions in Idaho’s capital and you’ll have an idea how traumatized Tripoli is right about now.

I don’t know how much armed conflict needs to take place before we stop referring to it as a series of clashes and start calling it war, but I’ll say two things. First, if I was in Tripoli when 1,200 explosions went off, I’d certainly feel like I was in a war zone. Second, I spent around six non-consecutive months in Iraq—one of them in Baghdad and another in Fallujah—and I never heard more than a thousand explosions over a weekend. I didn’t hear a thousand explosions in all my six months combined, nor did I hear that many on the Lebanese-Israeli border in 2006 when Israel and Hezbollah threw ordnance at each other. And no one hesitated to describe those conflicts as war.

If what’s happening in northern Lebanon isn’t war, it sure as hell looks a lot like it.

Another incident occurred over the weekend. Somebody fired rockets from Mount Lebanon into the dahiyeh, the Hezbollah-controlled suburbs south of Beirut. 

The perpetrators are almost certainly Sunni, but beyond that, who knows? Maybe they belong to or sympathize with the Free Syrian Army. Maybe they belong to or sympathize with Jabhat al-Nusra. Maybe they’re local Salafist whackjobs. They might even be secular Sunnis enraged by Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria on behalf of Bashar al-Assad.

It happened right after Hezbollah’s secretary general Hassan Nasrallah publicly threw his support behind the Syrian regime.

Hezbollah has always been a tool of the Assad family, of course. Hezbollah wouldn’t even exist as a militia if it were not for Damascus. The Syrian army promised to disarm every militia in Lebanon at the end of the civil war in 1990, but the Assads left Hezbollah in place. Iran’s Party of God was the perfect proxy that would allow Damascus to wage war against Israel from a safe distance (Lebanon absorbed all the Israeli counter attacks)  and it was the perfect proxy to keep Beirut in check, too. Hezbollah is a creature of the Syrian regime as much as it’s a product of the Iranian Revolution.

Everyone in the region understands this perfectly well. It’s Middle East 101. But Hezbollah, for whatever reason, has been coy about its armed intervention in Syria on behalf of Assad. Until recently, anyway. Its secretary general Hassan Nasrallah just boasted about it on television and the rocket attacks in his “capital” followed shortly thereafter.

It will almost certainly take more than one rocket attack in Hezbollah territory to ignite a full-blown Sunni-Shia war in Lebanon, but more than a thousand rockets and mortars just rained down on Tripoli, and there’s no reason in the world to believe something similar can’t happen south of Beirut.

Washington has been understandably reluctant to get involved in the Syrian war, partly because the White House rightly fears such involvement could turn a local war into a regional war. But it looks like that just might happen regardless.

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