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The Most Beautiful Part of Syria: Lebanon’s Fraught Relationship With Its “Big Brother”

There is a classic joke, told in the cafés of Beirut. A man wants to travel to the Middle East for a holiday. When he approaches his travel agent, he asks, “What is the most beautiful part of Syria to travel to?” The travel agent answers. “Lebanon.”

Lebanon and Syria are bonded more closely than almost any two states in the world. During the Ottoman period, they were ruled as part of a single province, Syria, which included modern Israel, Palestine and Jordan as well. However, as the Ottoman Empire decayed, struggling to reform, Europe began to take interest. Colonial powers interfered in Ottoman affairs, gaining political and economic concessions from the weakened empire through corruption, coercion and military intervention.

Following the First World War, Britain and France carved up the Middle East in the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement. This granted Britain control of Palestine, Iraq and the new kingdom of Transjordan, while solidifying pre-existing British domination of Egypt. France gained control of what is now Syria and Lebanon. French colonial administration divided the region into six states. Three of these states, including “Great Lebanon”, were drawn specifically to be demographically dominated by religious minorities, who were recruited disproportionately into the French colonial administration and militia.

Following the Second World War, Syria gained independence from France, with two of these majority-minority regions, Jabal Druze and the Alawite State, annexed to a unified Syria. Lebanon however gained independence separately. Lebanon’s borders had been specifically drawn to include the largest possible amount of territory with a bare Christian majority; thus, Lebanon’s Maronite Christian elite, fearing dominance from Damascus, argued for independence. For Syria though, this colonially inspired separation was false. The inclusion of Lebanon in a “Greater Syria” became an ideological point of a number of Syrian political movements, and the temptation of Syrian governments to interfere in Lebanon’s volatile politics was often indulged.

This interference came to a head most obviously during Lebanon’s long civil war, fought from 1975-1990. This war, fought between a constantly shifting set of sectarian, religious and political alliances, became more than just a civil conflict. Both Israel and Syria, keen to gain a client state on their border and advantage over the other, poured arms, money and political support behind favored groups, as well as used direct military intervention. While a peace deal, the Ta’if Agreement, eventually ended the civil war, Syrian and Israeli influence remained. Israeli troops remained in control of a “buffer zone” in the South, while Syrian troops occupied much of the rest of the country until 2006, when they were forced to withdraw by mass protests.

Yet, since the beginning of Syria’s ongoing civil war over two years ago, Lebanon has remained relatively free of spillover conflict from their “big brother” next door, due to no small effort on the part of its government. The Lebanese government has dutifully managed flare-ups of violence in Lebanon itself, repressing clashes between pro and anti-Syrian forces in a number of occasions; as many of the sectarian tensions that have inflamed the Syrian civil war exist in Lebanon as well, allowing outbreaks of violence to continue could spiral into another Lebanese civil war.

However, this hasn’t prevented Lebanese political actors from interfering in Syria itself. Hezbollah, Lebanon’s powerful Shi’a political party-cum-militia, has had a close logistical and ideological relationship with the Syrian regime since the days of the civil war, and has unofficially contributed fighters to the regime’s war effort. Meanwhile, Sunni opposition politicians, militant leaders have facilitated the transfer of foreign fighters and arms to the Syrian rebels along their porous, mountainous border.

This has led to Syrian reaction. Starting in February, clashes have occurred in increasing numbers along the often un-demarcated border. On March 18, the first Syrian airstrikes were launched against targets in Lebanon, a move widely condemned by international actors who fear that Syria could explode into a regional conflagration. Followed by rumours that chemical weapons were being used on a small scale against rebel forces, this growing tension is worrisome. While a redux of Syria’s 1976 invasion of Lebanon is not an option for obvious reasons, Syria’s close ally in Hezbollah, which retains significant popular support and can stand toe-to-toe with Lebanon’s weak, fragmented military, could stir up trouble in Lebanon, as could their counterparts in the Sunni opposition. This could lead to a shattering of Lebanon’s fragile political status quo. Whatever the result, Lebanon will be in for anxious days ahead.

– Alex Langer

(Featured photo: Attribution joshuapiano, Creative Commons, Flickr)

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