x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

A pair of proxy wars that bode ill for Lebanon's future

Lebanese and Syrian political interests are dangerously intertwined, and broader interests with them. Syria's crisis means danger for all factions.

In many regards the conflict in Syria has become a proxy war for political alignments in neighbouring Lebanon. Given that Lebanon has long served as a game board for countries in the Middle East, this represents no small irony. And yet the irony contains another.

The recent death of Hizbollah combatants in Syria only confirmed what had been an open secret in Beirut, namely that party members were participating in the repression carried out by the regime of President Bashar Al Assad. Hizbollah, echoing its sponsors in Iran, regards Mr Al Assad's downfall as a strategic menace, an effort to undermine the axis of resistance against Israel and the United States.

But Hizbollah, in bolstering Mr Al Assad, also seeks to consolidate its position in Lebanon, where the party remains the vanguard of the Iranian presence in the Levant. For a decade and a half it was Syria's hegemony over Lebanon that permitted Hizbollah to thrive. The party built up its tremendous arsenal while Syria kept its Lebanese partners in check, ensuring that Hizbollah retained wide latitude to pursue its agenda. Maintaining Assad rule would be a way for the party to secure itself against the resentment of its domestic foes.

On the other side, there is growing evidence that those close to the former Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, are involved in assisting rebel forces. According to reports in Time magazine and The New York Times, one of Mr Hariri's parliamentarians, Oqab Saqr, is believed to be distributing weapons to the rebels in Syria on behalf of Saudi Arabia. Mr Saqr is also said to represent the Saudis in a secret command centre based in Istanbul that manages assistance to rebel units.

Mr Saqr, a Shiite who was elected from the town of Zahleh in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, is a peculiar choice. A former journalist, he was once tapped by Mr Hariri to organise a Shiite opposition front against Hizbollah in the Baalbeck-Hermel region of the northern Bekaa. The project was both dangerous and probably unworkable given the party's sway, but it did show that Mr Saqr is a man willing to take risks. Yet his gun-running experience is limited, and in Syria he has allegedly been having trouble dealing with supply issues.

Mr Hariri undoubtedly views his own actions in Syria as payback against Mr Al Assad and Hizbollah, whom he believes were behind the assassination of his father, Rafik Hariri, in February 2005. However, beyond that the former Lebanese prime minister, a Sunni, is very likely making a bid for an influential role in a future Syria, once the Sunni community there regains the upper hand. That would help him increase his leverage over Hizbollah, his main rival at home.

The irony of the Lebanese proxy war in Syria is, of course, that the Lebanese are working on behalf of powerful states in the Middle East. What we have is a war by proxy playing out inside a much larger war by proxy. Hizbollah serves Iran, while Mr Hariri is purportedly acting on Saudi Arabia's behalf, even as both Lebanese parties have objectives all their own, which have meaning principally in the Lebanese context.

This only reaffirms that Lebanon risks once again becoming a plaything for outsiders. Even as Hizbollah and Mr Hariri lend a hand to one side or the other in Syria, they may find themselves prisoners of regional dynamics over which they have little control. Most perilous is that Lebanon's Sunnis and Shiites, so busy acting out their differences vicariously today through Syrian factions, may one day enter into direct confrontation with one another.

Neither Hizbollah nor Mr Hariri desires such an outcome. But both are pushing the envelope in a war ultimately not quite theirs. Lebanon's Sunnis, who bitterly oppose the Syrian regime, feel more empowered than ever by Mr Al Assad's predicament. Hizbollah, in turn, remains especially well armed, even as its uncertainty about the fate of the Syrian leadership has generated anxiety in party ranks.

These volatile contrary forces - an increasingly confident Sunni community eager to challenge a militarily potent Hizbollah, at a moment of rising apprehension among Shiites - are deeply disquieting.

Then there is the question of how Mr Hariri's activities in Syria will affect his career in Lebanese politics. The former prime minister still leads the largest bloc in parliament, and elections are scheduled for next summer. If Mr Hariri performs as well as he did in the 2009 elections, he would be favoured to return as head of a new government. Yet in the present political climate, it is difficult to see how this would fail to heighten animosities with Hizbollah. In other words, Mr Hariri's Syria strategy, justifiable or not, may hamper his ability to play the role of consensus prime minister in Beirut.

For the Lebanese to shield themselves from the spillover in Syria, they must be very careful in the coming months and beyond. Once the fighting ends, the contradictions of the multi-confessional, multi-ethnic Syrian polity will come to the fore, and this may exacerbate the inadequacies in Lebanon's own social contract. Potentially, Lebanon could find itself before one of three paths: that of serious reform to agree on a new social contract; the perpetuation of stalemate; or conflict.

The two alternatives could feed into each other. Stalemate may lead to open conflict, while conflict will only guarantee further stalemate. The savagery of the Assad regime and the justice of the Syrian uprising notwithstanding, Lebanon's priority must now be to safeguard its own shaky political order. That is one reason why the Lebanese have displaced their disputes to Syria.

However, that capability can end at any time, with possibly frightful consequences.

Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut, which is majority owned by Hariri companies

On Twitter: @BeirutCalling