Lebanon, Syria and Arab Spring

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Interview with American University of Beirut student Sam Michelman:

It is a three-hour drive from Beirut to Damascus. As neighbors, Lebanon and Syria have shared many historical moments together. They both endured the transition from Ottoman rule to French mandate and finally to independence. Beirut and Damascus were the twin hearts of modern Arab nationalist thinking. They share two of the most similar Arabic dialects in the Middle East. In spite of this, Lebanon and Syria have seen a tumultuous past fifty years. Syria’s union with Egypt in 1958 threatened Lebanese independence, and only six years ago did Syria’s decades-long occupation of Lebanon end.

The year 2005 marked the two dates that would come to symbolize Lebanon’s two political alliances. On March 8, 2005, Hezbollah and its allies held demonstrations thanking Syria for its “help” in stabilizing Lebanon. This pro-Syrian alliance became known as March 8. On March 14, 2005, millions of Lebanese successfully demanded the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon. This alliance of Christian, Sunni, and Druze politicians became known as March 14.

In 2008, the March 14-led government removed a Hezbollah-supported airport security head and declared a Hezbollah private communications network illegal. The ‘Party of God’ (translation of Hezbollah) responded by violently taking over West Beirut in May of that year, forcing the government to retreat from its actions. The Doha Agreement that ended the clashes gave March 8 veto power in the Cabinet. The post-Doha Lebanon saw political tendencies gradually gravitate back towards Damascus.

Despite March 14’s stunning victory in the 2009 parliamentary elections, the trend continued. On January 12, 2011, March 8 opposition ministers withdrew from the Lebanese government causing Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s government to collapse. The issue at the forefront of the dispute was the international tribunal charged with bringing the murderer of Hariri’s father to justice. When March 8 learned of leaks showing that focus was narrowing in on Hezbollah members, it decided to pull the plug on the government. Druze leader and political bellwether MP Walid Jublatt’s shift toward Damascus and support of a March 8 government symbolized Syria’s unofficial return to Lebanon.

As Syria becomes engulfed in protest, the one static element in the Lebanon equation becomes a question mark. What was once a given is now an unknown, and these events only let us pose more questions. Syria acts as a moderating force between Hezbollah and Iran, making sure that the latter does not cut it out as a middleman. Jumblatt, the kingmaker in the Lebanese parliament, most likely shifted allegiances under Syrian pressure. If the protests in Syria succeed, how will Lebanese political alignments survive after a reboot?

Since Lebanese politicians are largely responsive to outside patrons–Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran, and the United States–what happens in Lebanon depends on the form of a new Syrian regime. In theory, a Sunni-led Syria would distance itself from Iran and Hezbollah. Or, a new Syrian government could take a more pragmatic approach by maintaining strategic ties with Iran.

Should the Syrian regime fall, Hezbollah itself will face an existential crisis. Its propaganda campaign has portrayed itself, Syria, and Iran as the only states truly free of Western imperialism and devoted to the Palestinian cause. Without the backing of a strong Syrian regime and its reputation as a force of liberation tarnished, Hezbollah may be forced to undergo further transformations to remain relevant. Even in the most extreme of cases, however, Hezbollah will not simply disappear—its overwhelming Shi’ite base and able warriors will sustain it for some time.

MP Michel Aoun, leader of a large March 8 Christian bloc, may be faced with a more difficult time justifying his allegiance to Syria with his political base. A major electoral loss for Aoun’s bloc would cripple March 8’s parliamentary efforts—no matter how strong Hezbollah is, 64 of 128 seats in Parliament are Christian. While in reality Hezbollah is the backbone of March 8, Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement is its key to Parliament.

The fall of Assad could mean radical changes for the Levant, but until we know his fate we will be left with little more than speculation. Until the Syrian situation develops further, the situation in Lebanon will most likely remain at a standstill. For decades, Lebanese citizens have been prepared to flee to Syria with a moment’s notice. Few ever imagined they would live to see the reverse.

Written by Patrick Shipe who studies foreign affairs history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

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