Q&A: Syria’s violence spreads to Lebanon

Is ‘the fate of the nation’ in jeopardy after Wissam al Hassan’s murder? © Getty Images

Lebanon is threatened with a return to its chaotic past, as the bloody civil war raging in Syria starts to spill over into neighbouring countries. What is at stake in this ‘proxy war’?

Q: So what’s the news?

A: The Lebanese army is on the streets of the country’s two largest cities, Beirut and Tripoli, trying to prevent more violence flaring up between supporters and opponents of the government in Syria. There, just across the border from Lebanon, a popular uprising that aimed to overthrow President Bashar al Assad a year and a half ago has been brutally put down, leading to a bloody stalemate now officially classed as civil war.

Q: Why does it matter so much what happens to Lebanon’s neighbour?

A: Syria is no ordinary neighbour. It is a powerful military presence in the region, with a ruling regime that has intervened in Lebanese affairs for decades. It’s complicated, but essentially the Syrian elite are Shia Muslims, like the Lebanese government, while the Sunni Muslims in Lebanon tend to sympathise with Syria’s Sunni revolutionaries.

Q: So it’s a religious battle between groups of Muslims?

A: Much broader, but the politics follows sectarian lines: some commentators fear that the streets of Lebanon will become a new battlefield for the Syrian conflict: a ‘proxy war’. Over the last few days this danger has intensified. The Assad regime is accused of assassinating an anti-Syrian intelligence chief with a car bomb on Friday, sparking off violent clashes in which several people have died. Lebanon was only recently the victim of a civil war that lasted 15 years and killed 120,000, and ordinary people on the streets are frightened of a slide back into that conflict. The army says ‘the fate of the nation is at stake’.

Q: When you say the assassinated man was ‘anti-Syrian’, what does that mean?

A: General Wissam al Hassan was investigating previous murders and suggested that Syria was guilty. So his murder has also been attributed to the Syrians or their agents, and has contributed to what reporters call a ‘furious mood’ in Sunni areas of Lebanon.

Q: Is Syria’s civil war affecting other places in the region?

A: Yes. The fighting has already spilled over into villages along the border and into the Lebanese city of Tripoli. Turkey too has exchanged fire across the Syrian border, incensed that Assad’s forces had killed Turkish citizens while hunting down rebels. Jordan, another neighbouring country, said a soldier was killed on Sunday night trying to stop a group of Islamists crossing over into Syria to join the rebellion.

Q: What should the rest of the world do to help?

A: Diplomats are calling for Lebanese politicians not to inflame either side. But ending the source of the problem in Syria presents a dilemma. One international newspaper said yesterday that the world was just ‘hand-wringing from the sidelines.’ Some have called for the anti-Assad rebels to be given arms and other military assistance: this would break the stalemate in the civil war but would add to the death toll. It could also end up putting guns into the hands of jihadis and further destabilise the region.

Q: What do you mean?

A: Well, both Lebanon and Jordan worry that the Syrian conflict has already led to a rise in Islamist groups recruiting angry young men who then arrive, armed, in their own countries. Lebanon is worried that there are already more guns in civilian hands, escalating tension. And Jordanian politicians say they are worried about ‘extremists going around with more and more weapons’.

Q: So trying to end the civil war by providing arms could end up spreading the war across the borders?

A: Exactly. And while the international community wonders what to do, the Lebanese army has taken over the streets to damp down the tensions and prevent more violence. Unfortunately, while this might prevent a return to civil war, it is also being seen by some as protecting a government that is in league with Assad, currently one of the world’s most hated men.

You Decide

  1. Should the West arm Syria’s rebels, even if this increases the level of violence?
  2. ‘The only thing more destructive than politics is religion.’ Do you agree?

Activities

  1. Make a map of Syria and neighbouring countries to illustrate where violence has spread.
  2. The army says it wants to ‘prevent Lebanon becoming again a place for settling regional scores.’ What do generals mean by this description of the country’s recent history? Research this question and write a short briefing.

Some People Say...

“War is the natural human state: peace is only a temporary lull in the fighting.”

What do you think?

Word Watch

Sectarian
Suspicion and hatred along dividing lines determined by which part of a religion (which sect) people belong to. For example, Catholic versus Protestant.
Shia
Throughout history, Shia Muslims have rejected official leaders of their religion, preferring to follow a line of their own Imams rather than those elected after the death of the Prophet Muhammad.
Sunni
Descendants of those who followed the religious leaders elected for the Muslim religion after Muhammad’s death, rather than the Prophet’s descendants.

Subjects

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