x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Lebanon divided over Syrian support

Beirut’s decision to reject the expulsion of Syria from the Arab League has been questioned by former PM Saad Hariri.

BEIRUT // Lebanon's vote against the Arab League decision to suspend Syria's membership over the continuing crisis has prompted domestic criticism and further exposed the deep political divisions in the country.

Lebanon joined Yemen and Syria on Saturday in voting against the organisation's sanctioning of President Bashar Al Assad's regime, after Damascus failed to implement an Arab League plan to try to bring an end to the eight months of bloodshed, which has left more than 3,500 people dead.

As pressure mounted on Syria from across the Arab world, some analysts warned against Lebanon's increasingly uneasy regional position amid fears of isolation.

Imad Salamey, a professor of political science at the Lebanese American University, believes the government's decision to oppose sanctions against Syria and its suspension from the Arab League had increased the chances of domestic turmoil.

"Right now, Lebanon is not being looked upon in positive terms and it is isolating itself," he said. "The consequences include increased polarisation between political groups and growing instability in the country."

Members of the governing March 8 bloc have vocally sided with the Al Assad regime, while factions linked to the March 14 alliance have largely backed the Syrian opposition.

Local media have reported that even some members of Lebanon's cabinet - which is dominated by March 8 allies - had expressed concerns about the vote against the Arab League suspension of Syria.

However, this week, Lebanon's foreign minister, Adnan Mansoor, defended the government's decision, saying that it "reflected the ... supreme Lebanese national interest".

The prime minster Nejib Miqati and the president Michel Sleiman have also both defended the government's position in recent days, warning of the risks posed by isolating Syria.

"Lebanon is in principle against the isolation of any Arab state in view of the damage it causes," Mr Sleiman was quoted in the Daily Star newspaper as saying.

"While we adhere to the Arab League's resolutions, we consider that isolation punishes the people, not only the governments."

However, the former prime minister Saad Hariri criticised the government's vote against the Arab League resolution, taking once again to Twitter to express his belief that it put Lebanon on the side of "murder and dictatorship".

The highly sensitive issue of the Syrian revolt led two Lebanese politicians almost to blows during a live television debate on Monday night.

A former MP, Mustafa Allouch, who is a member of Mr Hariri's Future Movement and a critic of the Syrian regime, traded insults with Fayez Shukur, the head of the Lebanese branch of Syria's Baath party. The anchor had to intervene to split them up after one of the men attempted to throw a chair at his opponent.

While Mr Miqati's government is undoubtedly in an uneasy position, it remains to be seen how Lebanon - a state that is still seen as heavily influenced by Syria - could stay on the sidelines of the crisis.

Talal Atrissi, a Lebanese political analyst and commentator, said he was not surprised by Lebanon's vote against the Arab League resolution, given the strong ties between the Lebanese and Syrian governments.

"They don't want to support the revolution and prefer to push for negotiations," he said. "Also, Lebanon effectively is scared of the repercussions of the crisis in Syria."

While the violence has so far not spread across the border, there have been reports of Syrian opposition figures kidnapped in Lebanon in recent months, as well as incursions across the border carried out by the Syrian army.

There were already an estimated 5,000 Syrian refugees who have sought shelter in Lebanon since the outbreak of the fighting.

Many of the displaced - mainly women and children - have been staying in the Wadi Khaled area of Lebanon, which straddles the border with Syria.

The Syrian army has reportedly placed landmines along parts of the historically porous border in recent weeks, in an effort, some have said, to prevent arms smuggling across the frontier.

Syrian activists, however, believed it was an attempt to seal the borders and stop the flow of civilians, and some deserting soldiers, fleeing into northern Lebanon from the Homs province.