In our November 2012 column, we briefly discussed the history of Bashar al-Assad and his reign in Syria. While the conflict there has in no way ceased, the coverage by the mainstream media seems to waver from day to day. We should not take our eyes off the civil war — while it is not America’s problem and we are well-advised to keep our distance, the eventual outcome may have broad effects on the region and the world.
This month we are shifting our focus to Syria’s western border and the country of Lebanon; a nation that is surrounded on two sides by Syria and has a good deal of concern on how things will play out.
For much of modern history, Lebanon and Syria were seen as one country, a small section of the Ottoman Empire. In 1920, following World War I, France took control of the region and carved out Lebanon as its own nation. The idea was to keep it separate so as to promote its Christian majority. In some respects this was successful, with Lebanon becoming a popular French vacation spot that embraced French culture. But any arbitrary borders are sure to lead to tension — Syria has never stopped thinking of Lebanon as its land, and the Sunni Muslim minority in Lebanon would be more than happy to reunify.
Between 1940 and 1946, Lebanon became less economically dependent on France and achieved full sovereignty at the end of World War II. Ironically, it was Hitler’s invasion and occupation of France that forced European nations to give up their colonies in the Middle East and Asia.
A European culture still flourished in Lebanon, and the capitol of Beirut grew as a banking center. But the next test came during the Cold War, with Syria siding with Egypt and Russia, and Lebanon siding with Europe. Had there been only local political issues, this era might not have been so tumultuous. But with international realignment, Lebanon was torn apart from within, the Christians again linked to the West and the Muslims linked to the East.
In June 1976, Syria dispatched Palestinian units under its control into Lebanon, and soon after sent in its own troops as well. Syrian claims these interventions came in response to appeals from Christian villagers under attack by leftists in Lebanon. For over thirty years, the Syrians remained. While there was some level of appreciation for the security they provided from Israel (on Lebanon’s Southern border), especially after Israeli forces assassinated Lebanese president-elect Bachir Gemayel in September 1982, the foreign occupation was generally resented more as the years wore on. By 1989, 40,000 Syrian troops remained in central and eastern Lebanon under the supervision of the Syrian government. The “War of Liberation” was launched against the Syrian forces, with fighting beginning on March 14. It was ultimately not successful.
A United Nations resolution was sponsored by France and the United States in 2004 calling on Israeli and Syrian forces to leave Lebanon. The resolution was passed on September 2, though largely ignored by the countries it targeted. As of July 2013, Israel had pulled back its ground forces, but had still been flying drones in Lebanese airspace.
The February 14, 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri was blamed on the Syrian government because of Hariri’s opposition to Syrian intervention in Lebanese politics. This sparked the so-called Cedar Revolution, with citizens again rising up against the occupation. The Syrian government denied any involvement of Syrian leaders in Hariri’s death but scheduled final withdrawal from the country by April 30. (Subsequent investigations raised suspicions about Hezbollah or Israel’s involvement in the murder, but no definitive answer has yet been found.)
In recent years, the relationship of the two countries had warmed. In December 2008, the Syrian embassy was opened in Beirut for the first time since the 1940s. A few months later, Lebanon opened its embassy in Damascus. But then the Syrian civil war erupted, and all hell broke loose.
The biggest problem for Lebanon since the war began is the influx of Syrian refugees, which has increased local tensions between various religious and political sects. In November 2011, the Syrian army installed landmines along the border to prevent people from fleeing into Lebanon. This has done little or nothing to stop the flow.
More than 600,000 Syrians (including 71,000 Palestinians) have fled their country to Lebanon, according to the United Nations. The Lebanese government puts the number as high as 1.2 million. With Lebanon’s native population being only 4.2 million, this would be the equivalent of over 40 million refugees (using the lower estimate) coming to America within two years — it would be devastating. The small town of Miniyeh in northern Lebanon had such an overflow of wounded Syrians that the local hospital was unable to aid its own citizens. Cities throughout the country have instituted a strict curfew to curtail thefts — a majority of the immigrants came without a change of clothes and have been reduced to stealing just to survive. The UN says that the civil war has prompted the worst refugee crisis since the Rwandan genocide twenty years ago. In July, Britain offered $75 million to help the state with the crisis of the Syrian refugees. But can any amount of money help a country whose needs are mushrooming overnight?
The various rebel and paramilitary groups are getting more members and becoming more active. Also in July, an explosion struck a convoy of cars in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, an eastern wine-making region. This was found to be an attack on Hezbollah by members of al-Qaeda. This shows another reason for America to not get involved — we would be forced to ally ourselves with terrorists, regardless of which side of the civil war we support. Within Lebanon’s borders, al-Qaeda and a group called the Nusra Front are anti-Syria, while Hezbollah is traditionally pro-Syria. Our best bet to help Lebanese citizens who are fighting against Syria would be to aid al-Qaeda, which is just about the last thing average Americans would support. (Interestingly, the European Union does not consider Hezbollah a terrorist group and the Lebanese government has called them an “essential component of Lebanese society”.)
In mid-July, a senior official, Mohammed Darrar Jamo, was shot dead in the southern Lebanese town of Sarafand. Jamo was head of the political and international relations division of the International Organization for Arab Immigrants. He had also frequently appeared as a political expert on Arabic-language television channels, defending President Assad. As of print time, the official explanation was that this murder was from a brother-in-law and not politically motivated, but the Lebanese are finding this explanation hard to swallow.
Even setting up a basic government has been stumbling. Prime Minister-designate (and son of a former prime minister) Tammam Salam was chosen to form a new government in April, but as of now has been unable to form a Cabinet because of the political unrest. This in turn affects law enforcement — and with the instability of the country, there has also been a rise in marijuana cultivation, with farmers selling their illicit crops at $1200 per kilogram (roughly $500 per pound). What will this do to the international drug trade?
The problems in Syria and Lebanon are of course more complex than can be summed up in this column. If nothing else, readers should take away this one message: what seems like a regional issue today could be an international issue tomorrow. Who could have predicted that aiding Afghan freedom fighters in the 1980s would result in 9/11 twenty years later? We must remain vigilant of this small, fragile world.
Gavin Schmitt (email@example.com) likes to embrace Lebanese culture by listening to Shakira. Those hips don’t lie.