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The War in Syria Spills Over

The recent assassination of Mohamad Chatah in Beirut could spur further violence in Lebanon and beyond argues Bessma Momani.

By: /
30 December, 2013
Bessma Momani
By: Bessma Momani

Professor at the University of Waterloo’s Balsillie School of International Affairs and a CIGI senior fellow

The assassination of Mohamad Chatah, a prominent critic of Assad, in Beirut last week is a testament to the fact that Syria is not just imploding, it is also exploding. Its first victims are Lebanese, but I doubt they will be its last. The entire region could slide into further chaos while the international community watches with distaste, yet seems impotent to help militarily.

Few doubt that Hezbollah or its proxies are responsible for the bombing that killed the former Lebanese finance minister. Mr. Chatah was a vehement critic of the Assad regime and Hezbollah’s military and logistical support for it. He paid the ultimate price for that criticism.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Chatah in the late 1990s when he was Lebanon’s Ambassador to the United States. His take on the political situation in the Middle East was a revealing account of how politics, personal egos, and economic factors are often intertwined. This ‘speaking truth to power’ clearly didn’t end when he returned to Lebanon from Washington. In the past year, he became a vocal critic of the Assad regime’s murderous role in the Syrian conflict and, more importantly, the way Hezbollah has jeopardized the already tenuous political and sectarian fault lines in Lebanon by supporting Assad.

Bombings like this are sadly all too familiar in Lebanon. The country’s 1975 to 1990 civil war left over a hundred thousand dead and a deeply fractured community that made peace through an ugly sectarian system called consociationalism. Simply put, power is divided in somewhat equal parts among the three main religious communities: Sunnis, Shiite, and Christians. The situation is so odd that I hear Lebanese say it takes three people to do one person’s job.

To say that consociationalism is under strain today is an understatement. Lebanon is tearing apart from within, and the Syrian conflict is feeding this fissure.

More than a third of Lebanon’s population today are Syrian refugees. This influx of people has undercut local labour wages and spurred inflation as the increased demand for all goods pushes up prices. This social upheaval has exposed the old political fault lines, pitting one sectarian community against another.

For Hezbollah, the fall of Assad is an existential threat. The Syrian regime gives the organization access to the only direct land route to replenishing Iranian armaments.

Make no mistake, there’s no religious affinity between Syria’s Allawite-dominated secular regime and the militant-cum-religious Shiite political party of Hezbollah. This is a fallacy that is perpetuated by a simplified and binary view of the conflict.

The Assad-Hezbollah alliance is a military and strategic one with a common enemy: the perceived anti-Iranian, pro-Western rebels who want to bring down the Assad regime. The influx of militant Islamists coming to support the Syrian rebels just gives the Syrian regime and Hezbollah a new declared enemy: al-Qaeda or, as Hezbollah’s commander Nisrallah likes to call them, ‘Takfiris’ or non-believers.

Civil wars are all too often filled with competing narratives where new cycles of violence are justified as retribution for previous murders. Innocent people too often pay the price for these surges in violence and I’m afraid that Mohamed Chatah will be just one of many more to Lebanese to come.

Lebanon’s fractured political system makes it susceptible to such violence. And with a similarly fragile system in Iraq and large groups of Syrian refugees in Southern Turkey and Jordan, the region is primed to explode while the West scratches its head.

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