x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Syrian opponents agree Lebanon must stay stable

Officials from Moscow to Riyadh are alarmed that Syria¿s crisis has fuelled sectarian clashes in Lebanon.

BEIRUT // Concerned about Syria's uprising spilling beyond its borders, countries which back opposing sides in the rebellion against Damascus seem to agree on supporting the stability of Lebanon.

Officials from Moscow to Riyadh have expressed alarm that Syria's crisis has fuelled sectarian clashes in Lebanon's north and gun battles in Beirut.

But fear of chaos in Lebanon is about as close as world powers will get to consensus over the 15-month uprising against Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, according to analysts. If anything, they say, these divisions will likely produce more problems for Lebanon.

"So long as there is a lack of international consensus over what to do in Syria, and so long as that fuels polarisation and division, that will directly feed into the political debate in Lebanon and will most likely seep over and cause further instability in Lebanon," said Julien Barnes-Dacey, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank.

This week the primary backers of Syria's rebels and its regime - Saudi Arabia and Russia, respectively - weighed into the Lebanon debate with similar expressions of concern.

Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, warned that Syria's crisis could result in a "very bad ending" for Lebanon's often feuding religious communities. Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah urged Lebanon's president to stay out of Syrian affairs.

But neither side shows any sign in compromising over their competing interests inside Syria.

Russia, which maintains a naval base in Syria, considers its allies in Damascus valuable for projecting its influence in the region. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, views supporting Syria's Sunni-led rebellion as a way to diminish the regional influence of Damascus' main partners, Iran and the Lebanese Shiite movement, Hizbollah.

This would not only fuel fighting in Syria, analysts say. It also makes Lebanon a useful arena for the competing interests of outside powers.

Saudi Arabia, along with Qatar and indirect support from the United States, is reportedly using Sunni allies in Lebanon's north to funnel support to Syrian rebels. That in turn is sounding alarms in Damascus and with its supporters. The arrest this month of a little-known Sunni Islamist in Tripoli was seen by many here as a result of growing pressure from the Syrian government to clamp down on rebel supporters in the area.

Still, most Lebanese do not want the Syria conflict to destabilise their own country, said Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. They are loath to see a repeat of their 15-year civil war.

The problem is that this unity falls apart when it comes to the fight inside Syria, he said. Lebanon's religious communities are divided over whether to support the government or rebels, which in turn makes them convenient tools by outside powers.

A key question, Mr Khashan said, is how far Saudi Arabia and its allies, as well as Iran and Russia, want to push their Lebanese contacts.

"These outside powers expect a degree of instability in Lebanon because, in a sense, Lebanon has always been somewhat unstable," Mr Khashan said.

"But what they want to do is avoid doing things here that will turn instability in Lebanon into an uncontrollable militant and combative kind of instability."

 

hnaylor@thenational.ae