Lebanon has always lived in the shadow of its neighbor to the northeast. Now, as the Assad family’s four-decade-old grip on power is painfully pried open, Lebanon, that flawed French creation, is sure to be drastically impacted by the results of uprising in Syria.
But the shape and effects of that impact are uncertain. If Israel is able to remain on the sidelines, as it has throughout the turmoil of the Arab Spring, then the fall of the Alawite regime in Syria will affect the sectarian state of Lebanon in one of two ways.
In one scenario, the demise of Assad’s Syria, which one expert called “the Iranians’ Trojan horse in the Levant” and another “the womb in which Hezbollah was born,” may lead to a rise in power for the Sunni Muslims, after years of increased Hezbollah-led Shiite control of Lebanon. Such a struggle, aided by the Sunni power brokers, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and the influx of al-Qaeda-like elements in Syria, would destabilize the country, push it toward another civil war, but weaken Israel’s fiercest enemy in the Levant and hinder Iran in its bid for regional hegemony.
Others argue to the contrary: Assad’s departure will create a power vacuum, a void, and it will be filled, promptly and without struggle, by Hezbollah, the strongest group in Lebanon. Assad’s loss and Hezbollah’s victory will be a major achievement for Iran, which has been vying for influence in Lebanon since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Israel, however, may not be able to watch passively as events unfold. Thus far the Israeli leadership has shined in its role as silent spectator to the historic events roiling the Arab world, but a transfer of chemical weapons to Hezbollah or an al-Qaeda-type group, which could entrench itself in the perhaps soon-to-be lawless lands along the Golan Heights, would demand Israeli action. Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said Tuesday that the transfer of chemical weapons to Hezbollah would be a casus belli. An Israeli strike, the IDF Chief of the General Staff Benny Gantz warned hours later, could lead to war. And war, at this stage, could push Lebanon toward oblivion.
A senior military source said recently that Israel, in its next engagement with Hezbollah, will deal Lebanon a blow so severe it “will need decades to get over it.” He intimated that he wasn’t sure Lebanon would recuperate at all.
Lebanon is the least viable of the post-Ottoman mandatory creations. The French took control of the territory in 1918 and, after crushing the Hashemite leader Faisal’s bid for Arab independence in Greater Syria, they carved out the only Christian majority state in the Middle East and named it the Republic of Lebanon.
Since independence, political powers have been assigned to certain religious groups. The president, for instance, has always been a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, the speaker of parliament a Shiite Muslim and the deputy prime minister a Greek Orthodox Christian.
That system of power-sharing – based on the last official census in Lebanon, taken in 1932 – collapsed horribly during the 1975-1990 civil war, in which 150,000 Lebanese were killed. Since then the Arab state with the highest literacy rate and lowest birth rate, the cultural center of the Arab world, has come under increased Hezbollah control.
Today Christians are a small minority; Shia Islam is the largest sect in the country by a wide margin, representing perhaps as much as half the population; Hezbollah holds 11 out of 30 state cabinet positions, providing it with an effective veto; and four of its officers, including Mustafa Badr al-Din, the head of the military wing, are wanted in The Hague for the 2005 murder of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The organization’s armed forces, united under the twin flags of battling Israel and spreading the gospel of the Iranian revolution, are in many ways more powerful than the state military.
On May 8, 2008, Hezbollah offered Lebanon a glimpse of its domestic strength. Frustrated by the state government decision to restrict its private fixed-line communications network, which was reportedly linked to Iran and Syria, and outraged by the decision to fire Hezbollah loyalist Brig. Gen. Wafiq Choucair from the post of airport security chief, a position that allowed him to oversee the smooth transfer of arms from those two countries, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah announced the organization would “cut off the hand” of any entity that tried to harm the movement. This was a proclamation that flew in the face of decades of rhetoric regarding Hezbollah’s Lebanon-first stance.
Nasrallah’s militiamen shut down the airport and the naval ports, torched rival news outlets and occupied parts of Sunni west Beirut and Tripoli. The Lebanese Army did not intervene; dozens of people were killed and hundreds injured.
On May 21, 2008, fearing civil war, all parties met in Doha and signed an agreement that increased Shiite influence in government and enabled Hezbollah to maintain control of its weapons, the largest arsenal of any non-state actor.
The current balance of power, though, could shift if the Alawites are toppled in Syria. “Powerful parties in Lebanon are just itching for Hezbollah to weaken as a result of the Assad regime’s fall in Syria,” according to Brig. Gen. (ret.) Shimon Shapira, a senior fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the author of “Hizbullah: between Iran and Lebanon.”
One indication of that has been the provocative road block established by the radical Sunni cleric Sheikh Hamad Assir. Since June he has barred Hezbollah traffic from Beirut to the south of Lebanon. Hezbollah forces could clear him out of the way in a few moments but the fact that they have not done so, according to an interview with Assir in the Financial Times, proves the organization’s current vulnerability. “They need to understand that they can’t control all of Lebanon,” he told the FT in June.
Shapira notes additional signs of Hezbollah’s vulnerability: for the first time in years secular groups in southern Lebanon have defied the Shiite organization’s ban on the sale of alcohol, pushing Hezbollah strongmen out of stores in Nabatiyeh; talk has resurfaced about appointing a Maronite Christian officer to oversee airport security; and many high-ranking officials were implicated in the CIA’s 2011 Hezbollah spy ring.
After Bashar Assad falls, Shapira said, “the probability of the civil war being reignited is not small.”
He predicted that Sunni Jihadist fighters would descend on Beirut, link arms with local Sunnis, and battle Hezbollah. The Christians and the Druze, perhaps representing a quarter of the population in total, would sit on the fence.
He noted that the majority of Hezbollah’s arms, some 70,000 rockets, mortars and missiles, among other weapons, were amassed with the express goal of battling Israel and would do the organization little good on the streets of Beirut. “The battles will be waged with small arms fire and in that both sides are equal,” he said.
Bassem Eid, a Palestinian analyst of Middle East affairs on Voice of Israel and a human rights activist, agreed with Shapira that Assad’s demise would ripple into Lebanon and destabilize the country. He likened Lebanon to Brussels and said he was sure the British and the French were “sorry they ever created it.”
But he was vehemently opposed to the idea that a Sunni victory in Syria would translate into tangible Sunni gains in Lebanon.
After Assad falls, “the one organization that will rule Lebanon will be Hezbollah. I have no shadow of a doubt,” he said.
Eid asserted that while in the Israeli narrative Bashar Assad’s regime has been seen as the bridge through which Iranian influence and arms cross into the Arab world, it also has served as a counterweight to Hezbollah’s strength in Lebanon. “They kept the balance intact,” he said of Assad’s regime, “and as soon as they leave, Hezbollah will step in and control Lebanon.”
And since Hezbollah “spends 24 hours of each day thinking how to draw Israel into a conflict,” he said, its rise would inevitably lead to a persecuted Christian minority, and another war with Israel.