Is this the calm before the storm for Lebanon?

November 23 2012: The Syrian civil war has had a devastating impact on the Syrian people, and now many worry that the conflict may travel across the border to Lebanon. Increasing violence in Lebanon, political impotence on the matter and a growing Syrian refugee population are adding to a problem that looks more than ever like a ticking time bomb.

Lebanese army patrol after clashes. Courtesy of (FunkMonk) Wikimedia.

This reality was quickly shattered in May 2012, when Lebanon felt for the first time the repercussions of Syria’s civil war.
The start of 2011 marked the beginning of the Syrian uprising against the regime of president Bashar al-Assad. Throughout the year, the daily protests and violence progressively worsened, culminating in the official declaration of a Syrian civil war at the start of 2012. The international community expressed grave fears about the escalation of the conflict, but it was the neighbours of Syria, such as Lebanon with its close historical ties to the country, that felt particularly fearful of a conflict that might spill over the borders and into their territory. The fear of conflict in Lebanon, however, seemed for the most part unfounded throughout much of 2012. Whilst Lebanon displayed moments of political instability, the situation was generally calm and tensions remained subdued.

Burning tires to create road blocks

This reality was quickly shattered in May 2012, when Lebanon felt for the first time the repercussions of Syria’s civil war. The murder of the prominent Sunni cleric, Sheikh Ahmad Abdel Wahed, in Tripoli (Northern Lebanon), sparked violent tensions in several districts of Lebanon and caused angered crowds of protesters to take to the streets. Their frustration and anger manifested itself through the blocking of roads in Tripoli, Akkar, Beirut and other areas, where tires were burnt and RPGs used. Lebanese security forces managed to bring the situation under control, however two more protests have been held since.

In early August, a spate of kidnappings of Syrian, Saudi, Kuwait and Turkish nationals occurred in and around Beirut. The kidnappings have been orchestrated on behalf of the Shia Meqdad clan from South Lebanon, with the intent of freeing one of their family members supposedly kidnapped and held by the Free Syrian Army. These actions have instilled fear into the vast majority of the Lebanese population, that worry history may repeat itself with the coming of another civil war. Those fears have been exacerbated by the recent car-bombing assassination of Wasim al-Hassan, a high-ranking Lebanese security official, in October this year. The bombing, in East Beirut’s Achrafieh district, killed seven people and left 128 wounded.

The increasing violence in Lebanon has demonstrated the all-important work of Lebanese NGOs that place emphasis on promoting peace and stability throughout the country. However, the various projects undertaken to resolve sectarian conflict and promote peace have posed great challenges and obstacles. Lebanese NGOs feel they must emphasise their partisan stance out of a concern that any political commentary or actions may adversely affect their work. Some, however, choose to vocalise their discontent, whilst still remaining anonymous. This was the case for one NGO representative in Beirut, that stated:

If there is a fire in an apartment next door, I cannot allow myself not to be aware of it cause it obviously could set mine on fire if not taken care of. The longer the fire lasts, the more dangerous it will become for myself.

“If there is a fire in an apartment next door, I cannot allow myself not to be aware of it cause it obviously could set mine on fire if not taken care of.”
Elaborating on this metaphor, the representative stated that the longer the turmoil in Syria continues, the greater the opportunity for Lebanese politicians to get involved in the conflict. The recurring nature of social unrest in Lebanon seems to give credence to the fear that the country may be pulled into the conflict.

The assassination of Wasim al-Hassan has led to the Lebanese opposition to use the incident to broker political change in Lebanon, by calling for a new cabinet and the resignation of Prime Minister Mikati. There are, however, more issues at stake here. The capacity for Lebanon to host the burgeoning number of Syrian refugees crossing into the country is reaching its limit, and many Lebanese fear that the political affiliation of the refugees could pose a threat to Lebanon.

Speaking with another NGO representative revealed the dichotomy of the Lebanese political approach to Syria. Politicians publicly urge for calm and neutrality towards Syria in order to distance Lebanon from the political situation. However, in the same breath, they publicly and strongly insist on supporting either one of the two factions in Syria.

Despite Lebanese NGOs efforts to counter the heightening tensions, many have complained that a lack of access to the highly politicised Lebanese media has made their work increasingly difficult, particularly when this medium could be used to effectively urge calm amongst the population. Additionally, many NGOs worry that issues of transparency, gender and young people are becoming side-lined and overridden by rising political tensions, as projects relating to these issues are then delayed whilst work is carried out on resolving tensions. This effectively undermines Lebanese development in areas other than peace-building and conflict resolution.

Even within the realm of peacebuilding, NGOs are struggling. Common community projects that typically involve communities coming together to rebuild relations and reduce prejudice are no longer attracting people across religious sects. Increasing suspicions and mistrust of one another within Lebanon has led to people looking inward to their own communities and shunning those that lie outside of it.

We now find ourselves asking the question of whether or not the tipping point has been reached. Is this the calm before the storm for Lebanon?

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