x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Lebanon, the region's weakest link, will pay a hefty price as Syria's civil war keeps grinding on

Lebanon is paying a heavy price for the civil war in next-door Syria, writes a columnist in Asharq Al Awsat. Also: a looming crisis in Iraq and military-civilian relations in the Arab world.

The relationship between Lebanon and its Syrian neighbour has never been easy since the border between them was delineated after the break-up of the Ottoman Empire in 1920, the pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Al Awsat noted in its editorial yesterday.

Back then, one camp within Lebanon wanted their newly demarcated country to enjoy full sovereignty, with no strings leading to to Damascus, while another saw in the western-imposed borderline a conspiracy to undermine Arab unity by separating the two territories.

This division remained within Lebanon, feeding on internal, sectarian crises and surviving regional alterations, Asharq Al Awsat said.

Over the decades, the fallout from the Palestinian struggle, the demise of Nasserism, the decline of Soviet influence in the Middle East and the outbreak of the Iraq-Iran war have all been harbingers of further trouble in this "brittle" state, the paper wrote.

"Today, the Lebanese are once again finding themselves … hostage, inside their own country, to an elitist, regional polarisation they have no power to rein in," the newspaper said, referring to the Syrian crisis.

Note that Syrian troops pulled out of Lebanon in 2005 after nearly 30 years of presence in the country which began, as the Syrian side has it, restore peace during and after the Lebanese civil war of 1975-90.

"Lebanon, which has a border with Syria and with Israel, is now the weakest regional link," the paper stated.

A major reason for Lebanon's increased vulnerability has to do with the publicly stated involvement of "key Lebanese players" in the Syrian crisis, the editorial said, in clear reference to Hizbollah, Lebanon's armed Shiite militia.

Hizbollah's involvement in the Syrian civil war, fighting on the side of President Bashar Al Assad's regime, is "a flagrant violation" of the Baabda Declaration, an agreement signed in 2012 between the rival Lebanese blocs known as March 8 and March 14, to ensure Lebanon's neutrality in external conflicts. The idea was to pre-empt the serious sectarian risks involved if the country were to take sides.

As a result of Hizbollah's breach of that agreement, tensions in Lebanon these days are high, delaying the formation of a government that the new prime minister, Tammam Salam, was designated to form last April. These tensions have also given rise to organised violence and bombings, as has been happening in Lebanon's north and, more recently, in the southern suburb of Beirut, the predominantly Shiite part of the city.

This is not to mention a ruined summer for a country whose economic lifeline is tourism.

"Clearly, the tax of the Syrian crisis is costing Syrians a lot, but it is also taking a toll on Lebanon and the Lebanese," the paper said.

Killings in Iraq warn that civil war looms

Almost no day goes by in Iraq without reports of new explosions and clashes between Sunnis and Shiites. Every day dozens of people die, the pan-Arab newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi said in an editorial. Most of the casualties are civilians, because many attacks target stadiums, markets, coffeehouses, mosques and mourners, the paper noted.

The sectarian mindset of politicians, leading to the exclusion and assassination of political rivals, adds to other regional factors, notably the Syrian conflict, among the primary causes of Iraq's unrest.

Iraq's continuing government crisis and the unclear democratic process have had a significant role in causing Sunnis to feel sidelined, the paper wrote.

The crisis of governance started early in 2012 when Iraq's vice-president, Tariq Al Hashemi. fled the country after facing terror charges. This greatly deepened the gulf between the prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki, and the Sunni population.

Mr Al Maliki has failed to open a dialogue with Sunnis taking part in sit-ins demanding a modification of terrorism laws that they see as targeting them.

Mr Al Maliki relies on time to maintain the political status quo. But his government could not prevent several massacres from happening, and armed militias are growing.

This dark picture led the United Nations to warn of a looming civil war.

An army can't control an enraged populace

Not long ago, Arab rulers did not fear their peoples. The people were under control, just like the political parties, the unions, and the media, wrote Ghassan Charbel, in an article in yesterday's edition of the London-based newspaper Al Hayat.

But most Arab rulers did fear the military. Iraq's Saddam Hussein, Syria's Hafez Al Assad and Libya's Muammar Al Qaddafi all kept their armies on a tight leash to serve their interests and keep them in power. In Egypt, successive ruler came from military backgrounds.

The army existed to serve the regime. It would be called in to quell "terrorists" or large-scale "riots", the writer noted.

Then the Arab Spring came and the rules of the game changed. Social media allowed Arab youngsters to badger rulers and dismantle their auras.

Once, Arab armies used to "nip sedition in the bud", "foil the conspiracy before it escalates" and control "spies".

Not any more. The Arab Spring took the rulers and their armies off guard, and tested the army's relationship with the regime, the state, the constitution and the people, the writer continued.

And no wonder. What can an army do when squares are filled with scores of protesters chanting, "The people want to bring down the regime"?

* Digest compiled by The Translation Desk