Lebanon: the risks of a wider Syrian conflict

The dilemma Syria faces at present is to choose between the Arab League initiative to create favorable conditions for dialogue with the regime’s opponents on the one hand, and, on the other, internationalization of the crisis–with the risk of the sort of military intervention that ended the Gaddafi regime in Libya. President Bashar Assad anticipated such a critical choice by warning recently in an interview with the Sunday Telegraph that western attack on his country would cause an "earthquake" that would "burn" the entire region and create another Afghanistan or tens of Afghanistans. Assad also dismissed the Syrian opposition as unrepresentative elements who did not deserve his attention.

The Arab League has been discussing a report presented by an Arab ministerial team headed by Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassem Al-Thani concerning the two meetings the team held with Syrian officials in Damascus and Doha. The Qatari minister warned that the entire region would be at risk of a massive storm if the Syrian regime allowed the violence to continue. He did not discard the possibility of an international military intervention. He also advised Syrian officials to take concrete steps and stop delaying and deceiving.

Many observers here in Beirut, after assessing the mission of the Arab ministerial team, believe it will be impossible for Assad to sincerely accept any Arab League "roadmap" that calls for withdrawal of his forces from Syrian cities, an end to violence, release of prisoners, and engaging leaders of the opposition in constructive dialogue that would eventually lead to real reforms. Assad knows quite well that the protestors will occupy all the streets and all the public offices the moment his troops are withdrawn from the streets. And he is well aware that any reform of the constitution would result in his downfall as president within a year or so.

In reality, Assad still has a number of strong cards he can play. His regime has been quite cohesive, and his security and military apparatuses remain solid and capable. He feels that the resources the regime can deploy mean it has the control and freedom of action to grind down the protestors. Yet there is growing concern that the violence of the regime and the increasing counter-violence of the opposition and military deserters could lead to a civil or sectarian war, at least in some parts of the country. Such dramatic developments would in turn intensify the debate regarding foreign military intervention in Syria with the approval of the United Nations Security Council.

Any military intervention must reflect serious consideration of the key issues involved, not limited only to risks to the Syrian population but also concerning a Syrian decision to widen the war to neighboring countries–most probably Lebanon and Israel. This would be inherently very risky for both Syria and Lebanon. The Syrian regime, if it feels imperiled, could lash out both internally and externally and cause the situation to become a wider war. Under such circumstances, the potential risks would not be limited to heavy casualties from foreign intervention, but could also comprise escalation into civil war or conflict with neighboring states. A civil war in Syria would place the Lebanese social and political balance in real jeopardy.

The worst case scenario for Lebanon is centered on the possibility of Assad fulfilling his threat (made in the presence of a Turkish official) to launch hundreds of missiles towards the Golan Heights and Tel Aviv if Damascus is attacked. In this event, Assad would ask Hizballah to attack Israel, adopting what might be called a "Samson option".

The Lebanese are deeply divided over what is happening in Syria. While the March 14 forces support the Syrian uprising, the March 8 forces led by Hizballah maintain strong support for the Assad regime. There is a general fear that sooner or later the on-going conflict in Syria will have strong repercussions on the security and stability of Lebanon. The important question for most Lebanese remains focused on whether Hizballah would comply with Syria’s request to attack Israel, knowing that this would lead to a wider war resulting in the destruction of Lebanon’s main infrastructures as well as most of the urban centers in South Lebanon.

Thus, any increase of violence in Syria, domestically or by foreign interference, would have strong repercussions on Lebanon. Meanwhile, deep divisions among Lebanese about Syrian developments also remain a source of danger. The debate between the opposing Lebanese camps about repeated Syrian violations of Lebanon’s sovereignty by crossing its national boundaries, along with recent kidnappings of several Syrian dissidents from Lebanon, is causing an increase of tension between the two camps.

Lebanese leaders should do their utmost to persuade the opposing factions to come forward, resume the national dialogue that was interrupted more than a year ago, and try to work out a plan to minimize the effects of a wider conflict in Syria.