Syria’s dark clouds gathering over Lebanon

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A file photo shows Syrian soldiers deployed in Arida, Syria, seen from the northern Lebanese border village of Wadi Khaled.

BEIRUT: The fast-moving military and political developments over the past few days are rapidly sucking Lebanon into the turmoil in Syria, threatening to destabilize the fragile country and probably plunge it into a new bout of sectarian fighting, analysts said.

Syria Monday carried out its threat to attack Syrian rebels allegedly hiding or based in Lebanon by sending its warplanes to strike targets in eastern Lebanon in an unprecedented development that has taken the tension on the Lebanese-Syrian border to an alarming crescendo.

Although no casualties were reported from the airstrike near the Bekaa Valley town of Arsal, whose Sunni residents mainly support Syrian rebels, the raid has heightened fears of the 2-year-old bloody conflict in Syria spreading to Lebanon, where rival factions are sharply split over the crisis next door. The raid came four days after Syria threatened to strike at Syrian rebels taking refuge in border areas in the north.

Worse still, Syria’s use of its jets to bomb anti-regime armed groups based in Lebanon threatens to turn the northern border area into a war front similar to that in the south, where Hezbollah attacks on Israeli troops occupying a border enclave had triggered retaliatory devastating Israeli airstrikes on southern towns and villages until the Jewish state withdrew its troops in 2000.

“It is one more step toward Lebanon’s entanglement and engagement in the Syrian conflict,” Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, told The Daily Star, commenting on Syria’s threat to strike at Syrian rebels in Lebanon.

“The spillover of the Syrian conflict, which has been going on for two years [since the start of the uprising in Syria] is widening, threatening to further engulf Lebanon in the melee,” retired Lebanese Army Gen. Elias Hanna told The Daily Star.

Political analysts Simon Haddad and Talal Atrissi concurred.

“Syria’s threat will further complicate the situation in Lebanon, pointing to the country’s further entanglement in the Syrian quagmire,” Haddad, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, told The Daily Star. He said the Syrian threat was aimed at influencing the attitudes of international powers who oppose the Assad regime.

“The Syrian threat was also a response to the Arab League’s decision and a plan by Britain and France to arm the Syrian rebels,” Haddad added.

Atrissi, an expert on Iran and Middle East affairs, said: “Syria’s threat is serious and could be translated into air and artillery bombardment against armed groups taking shelter in north Lebanon. The threat signals Lebanon’s further involvement in the tension arising from the Syrian crisis.”

Hanna, the retired Army General who teaches political science at both AUB and Notre Dame University, said Lebanon was the weakest chain among Syria’s other neighboring countries: Turkey, Iraq and Jordan.

He added that the Syrian army might strike targets in Lebanon with jets and artillery but it cannot occupy Lebanese land.

“Any occupation of a Lebanese land is an aggression on Lebanon’s sovereignty and a violation of laws,” Hanna said.

He added that Hezbollah, Syria’s key ally in Lebanon, cannot accept a Lebanese land to be occupied by Syrian forces.

Hanna said Syria’s threat against Lebanon was part of “a media campaign backed by limited military operations aimed at forcing regional and international powers to act to find a solution to the crisis in Syria.”

Damascus’ threat was coupled with reinforcement of Syrian military positions along the border with Lebanon. Media reports said the Syrian army had brought in more tanks and military vehicles to border areas.

Adding further fuel to the fire was Hezbollah’s involvement in the fighting in Syria alongside regime forces, in a development that drew the ire and warnings of Arab and foreign countries that support the armed revolt against the regime of President Bashar Assad.

These countries warned that Hezbollah’s participation in the Syria conflict would have grave consequences on Lebanon’s security and stability and was in breach of the Lebanese government’s self-declared disassociation policy on the Syrian crisis.

As expected, Hezbollah’s fighting against rebels on Syrian territory triggered threats by the Free Syrian Army to strike at the party’s military positions in Lebanese areas near the border.

Yet, perhaps the clearest signal about the potential risk of Lebanon being dragged into the Syrian violence was a serious threat by a pro-Assad Lebanese politician to strike back at his rivals in the northern city of Tripoli who support the Syrian uprising.

Rifaat Eid, the head of the Alawite Arab Democratic Party, warned of sectarian strife in Tripoli, vowing a harsh response to any major attack on the party’s headquarters in the Jabal Mohsen neighborhood by anti-Assad Lebanese factions based in the rival Bab al-Tabbaneh district.

The two sides had fought fierce battles in Tripoli in the past.

Speaking at a news conference at his office in Jabal Mohsen last week, Eid claimed that Tripoli had become a stronghold of the FSA and the radical Nusra Front, a Syrian opposition group fighting to oust the Assad regime.

Referring to the possibility of Syrian airstrikes on Tripoli similar to those that destroyed the Syrian city of Homs, Eid said the Lebanese city might be transformed into “a devastated city like Homs because it harbored terrorists who will destroy everything in it.”

Monday’s Syrian airstrike came a day after a Syrian government newspaper warned that Lebanon and Jordan were playing with fire by allowing jihadists and weapons to cross their borders into Syria.

“The fire of terrorism will consume not only Syria, but could spread to Lebanon and Jordan, particularly if these two countries intervene in the situation in Syria, ignoring the flow of armed men and weapons from their territory, or by participating directly in the conspiracy against Syria,” Al-Thawra newspaper said.

Responding to the Syrian warning, President Michel Sleiman said Lebanon would not allow the flow of arms and gunmen from its territory into Syria or the establishment of military bases on its territory to be used for attacks on its neighbor.

Atrissi, a lecturer at the state-run Lebanese University, said Syria’s threat carried “a message” to Lebanon to better control the poorly demarcated border.

Referring to a recent call by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for the Syrian opposition to sit together with Assad to find a solution to the crisis in Syria, Atrissi said the U.S. official’s decision has given the embattled Syrian president a badly needed political boost to face his opponents.

“The Syrian regime now feels stronger and is on the offensive against armed groups in Lebanon,” Atrissi said.

“There is a climate pointing to the formation of an international bloc to get rid of Salafist groups in Syria,” Atrissi added.

The renewal of deadly incidents on the Lebanese-Syrian border, which had claimed the lives of several Lebanese citizens last year, including four killed by Syrian gunfire last month, prompted fresh calls by the opposition March 14 parties for the deployment of the Lebanese Army and U.N. troops along the two countries’ common boundaries.

The Daily Star - Lebanon