x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Lebanese can weather chaos caused by Syria

Syria is ablaze, and the heat is getting uncomfortable in neighbouring Lebanon. But the Lebanese are to their credit mostly maintaining their collective calm - so far.

A Lebanese clan yesterday promised to continue its campaign of kidnapping Syrian nationals on Lebanon's soil. It was just the latest spillover from the neighbouring conflict. Last week, a former Lebanese minister close to the Syrian regime was arrested on charges that he was planning a string of bombings.

These incidents have renewed alarm across the region. The UAE and other Gulf Arab states have now warned citizens and residents to leave Lebanon, or to stay away. For the 4.1 million people of Lebanon, though, this is more serious than a cancelled Eid holiday. The fragile tranquillity of their ethnic and sectarian patchwork is under growing strain because of the Syrian conflict.

The abductions, for example, are the work of a Shia family whose kinsman, held in Syria by the Free Syrian Army, was accused of being a government sniper. The man's relatives snatched about 40 people, most of them Sunni Syrians working in Lebanon, to demand his release. It's a classic example of how disorder, like a forest fire, respects no borders.

Yet Lebanon's leaders - and its people - have a resilience strengthened by long experience. And so far, at least, civil authorities are scrupulously treating the kidnappings, and the bomb case, as public-security issues, rather than political crises. This prudent low-key approach was reflected in a terse, businesslike comment yesterday about the kidnappings from a senior Lebanese security official: "We are working on it."

For all their differences, Lebanon's factions share a common interest in living together peacefully. Even Hizbollah - sponsored by Syria and Iran, and still defined by its military wing that is a constant threat to the country's civil society - has grown cautious lately. As The National's columnist Michael Young argued on Wednesday, even Syria's allies are preparing for the end of the Assad regime.

Lebanese leaders met yesterday, in fact, in another national dialogue session to discuss Hizbollah's arsenal. Some officials missed the meeting to focus on the kidnappings, but the dialogue, desultory though it has been, is one tool for managing the balance of forces in the state. Lebanese are used to imperfect compromises to avoid conflict.

All parties, or almost all, understand that there is little to gain, and much to lose, by a descent into violence. The pressure will keep rising as Syria's regime lashes out in its death throes. The alleged bomb plot, involving former minister Michel Samaha and top Syrian intelligence officials, demonstrates the old Assad trick: destabilise the neighbours to consolidate support at home.

It is not only the people of Syria who will be relieved when stability returns to their country.