Syria's cross-border battleground

With one million refugees now in Lebanon, it could lead to violence across the region.

Bilal Hussein / AP

At least six people died in clashes between Sunni and Alawite Muslims in the Lebanese city of Tripoli last week. They, indirectly, are victims of the war in neighbouring Syria that has seen more than 100,000 die. Even among Lebanese, they are not alone. At least 47 people died in two bombings at Sunni mosques in Tripoli in August. Earlier bombings this summer in the Shia suburbs of Beirut killed at least 27. Hundreds more have been wounded.

Syria’s war has never been strictly a civil one. Outside countries are arming both sides. Iran has sent thousands of Revolutionary Guards into Syria to advise and train forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Iranian-sponsored Lebanese militia group and political movement Hezbollah has also sent its fighters into Syria. The rebels, for their part, have been bolstered by volunteers, almost entirely Sunni Muslims, from elsewhere in the Middle East and around the world.

If the Syrian war is fed by outside countries, it is also spilling into them. Millions of refugees have fled Syria to Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. But it is in Lebanon where their impact is mostly keenly felt. More than one million may be there (numbers are inexact), meaning that approximately one-quarter of Lebanon’s current population is Syrian. There are no official United Nations camps for Syrians in the country. Syrian refugees instead stay with Lebanese, or are living rough in makeshift camps outside cities and even within them.

“That poses an enormous burden on public services. The Lebanese government isn’t wealthy to begin with,” says Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Middle East Center in Beirut. Refugees strain the capabilities of the health and education systems. Those in makeshift camps raise concerns about sanitation among local residents. Resentment is inevitable, though Sayigh notes many Lebanese have also demonstrated generous solidarity. “I’m impressed by just how many Lebanese must be helping out,” he says.

Perhaps more serious than the growing humanitarian crisis is the looming possibility of a violent political one. Lebanon, like Syria, is a heterogeneous country, home to Sunni and Shia Muslims (including Alawites), Christians, and Druze. In Syria, the war is increasingly sectarian. The bombings and shootings in Lebanon in recent months demonstrate that those divides can be raw and volatile in Lebanon, too.

“Of all the neighbouring countries, Lebanon is the most affected, the most vulnerable and the most fragile,” says Fawaz Gerges, a scholar on the Middle East at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Lebanon’s interim prime minister, Tammam Salam, has been unable to form a government for months, leaving the country poorly equipped to deal with sectarian polarization.

“You have paralysis. The security situation has deteriorated from one end of the country to the other,” says Gerges.

Broadly speaking, most Lebanese supporters of the Syrian rebels are Sunni Muslims. Most Lebanese supporters of Assad are Shia Muslims, including those belonging to Hezbollah, which wields sizable political power inside Lebanon.

For Hezbollah, the war in Syria is close to existential. A friendly regime in Damascus that is allied to Iran, as is Assad’s, provides Hezbollah with the means to receive Iranian arms by land, which it desires in order to threaten Israel. Syria under Assad is Hezbollah’s “rear base,” says Sayigh, where it is trained and stores “special weapons.” This would end, were Assad to be defeated, which is why Hezbollah fighters are so committed to his survival.

Gerges believes that the primacy of the struggle inside Syria, from Hezbollah’s perspective, may restrain the movement inside Lebanon. It can’t afford to be fighting at home when its survival is at stake in Syria. Memories of Lebanon’s own long and destructive civil war a generation ago may also blunt the anger of those tempted to bring Syria’s war to Lebanon. “I’m hoping that the low-intensity warfare will not degenerate into all-out war,” he says.

But this is far from guaranteed. Sectarian divisions in Lebanon have deepened over the past decades, says Sayigh. Various Arab governments have stoked fears in the region about a “Shia crescent” stretching from Iran to Lebanon. The resulting atmosphere exacerbated tensions between Sunnis and Shias in Lebanon, even before the Syrian war broke out.

Lebanon, says Besmma Momani, a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance and Innovation in Waterloo, Ont., is like a vase that’s been put back together with duct tape. The dividing lines running through the country are different now than they were during its 1975-90 civil war, but the current fears of state collapse and fratricide are familiar.

“It’s a small country, a small space, and a mosaic that’s tormented by the raging conflict next door,” she says. “I don’t want to say it’s inevitable, but it’s one little spark that could put things in flames across the country.”

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