Since the recent assassination of the head of intelligence — Wissam al-Hassan, who was known to be aligned with the anti-Syrian March 14 alliance in Lebanese politics — in Beirut, there has been much speculation that the internal conflict in Syria could re-ignite civil war in Lebanon.
Such a line of thought has been raised vis-à-vis Iraq too. Indeed, just as Shi’ite militants from Hezbollah, which is aligned with the pro-Syrian March 8 alliance in government, have been fighting to assist the Assad regime in Syria, so too have Shi’ite militants from Iraq’s Badr Brigades and the Iranian-backed ‘Special Groups’ been heading across the border to fight against the rebels.
However, I posit that civil war is unlikely, for the following reasons:
Assassinations as the status quo: The fact remains that the killing of al-Hassan is simply part of a long line of political assassinations in Lebanon that stretches back decades in the country’s history. The most recent trend was apparent with the killing of the anti-Syrian Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005, the assassination of the anti-Syrian communist George Hawi in June 2005, and the murder in November 2006 of Pierre Amin Gemayel, who was a key member and MP for the Kataeb Party, which is a nationalist and predominantly Maronite Christian political organization that forms a part of the March 14 alliance.
The Kataeb Party wields much less influence than in the days of the Lebanese Civil War, but stands in contrast with the Free Patriotic Movement — another predominantly Christian party — that is aligned with the March 8 alliance. In September 2007, another member of the Kataeb Party and MP — Antoine Ghanem — was killed in a bomb attack in Beirut.
What is apparent is that — as in Iraq today — these political killings flare up from time-to-time, but they do not necessarily indicate a trend towards renewed civil war.
A similar problem in analysis can be observed as regards the question of violence in Iraq, where a given wave of bomb attacks in a particular month is too often taken as a sign of a renewed Sunni-Shi’a crisis with the possibility of tensions spilling out into outright civil war.
On the contrary, these attacks — perpetrated almost entirely by hardline Sunni insurgents — simply represent the status quo for violence in Iraq today that has stabilized at levels that still lead to hundreds of casualties a month. In any case, there is no phenomenon in Lebanon along these lines.
Small-scale protests and clashes: The assassination of Rafiq Hariri in 2005 brought out crowds of hundreds of thousands of demonstrators that eventually culminated in the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. Nothing comparable is to be observed in the aftermath of al-Hassan’s assassination. Media outlets were quick to note the clashes between police and protesters angered by the assassination and demanding that the March 8-led government under Najib Mikati resign, but such incidents are only to be expected, and did not bring about further wide-scale rioting.
One might wish to draw attention to the outbreaks of violence that have emerged in the city of Tripoli between Alawites backing the Assad regime and Sunnis opposed to the Syrian government, but these clashes are no more than sporadic in nature. It is not as though sectarian militias are freely roaming the streets, extorting money from their respective communities to perpetrate acts of mass ethnic cleansing.
The outbreaks of violence in Tripoli are predictable in light of the strong influence of Sunni Islamism (recall the burning of the KFC restaurant there in protest at the “Innocence of Muslims” movie) that arouses much rage in solidarity with the opposition to the Assad regime.
Further, the Alawites in the city — as an essentially outsider “diaspora” community relative to their co-religionists in Syria — are naturally prone to viewing the Syrian civil war as an all-out sectarian Sunni-Alawite conflict. Accordingly, many of them will have no qualms about openly expressing support for the Assad regime. Note that there is a similar phenomenon of solid backing for Assad among Alawites in Turkey.
The assessment to be drawn here is that violence in Lebanon pertaining to the Syrian conflict is still very much a localized phenomenon, occurring at pinpoints of tension rather than in large areas throughout the whole country.
Undoubtedly, the weakening or fall of the Assad regime translates to a weakening of Hezbollah’s position in Lebanon, and it is notable how muted the group’s response has been to the al-Hassan affair, which indicates that the organization certainly does feel under pressure over the growing perception of its role as a pro-Assad partisan force in Syria.
It also seems that there are — at least in the civilian ranks of Hezbollah — signs of increasing internal disagreement about whether to maintain ties with Damascus, something that may be reflected in the cancellation of the party’s convention that is supposed to be held every three years.
In the event of Assad’s downfall, Sunni opponents of Hezbollah may feel ever more emboldened to challenge Hezbollah’s position in the country and push harder the downfall of the current Lebanese government, but it does not necessarily follow that they are seeking to achieve this goal by violent means.
Hezbollah still has vastly superior firepower to take on any armed challenge from within Lebanon, but in the scenario of Assad’s downfall the group would likely be very wary of protracted violent confrontation, fearing that it could meet the same fate as the Assad regime, which, after all, also possesses superior firepower to that of its opponents from within.
At worst, sporadic incidents of violence will continue, with frequent displays of brinkmanship by Hezbollah and its opponents, similar to standoffs that on occasion have taken place in Iraq between central government forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga over disputed territory. Meanwhile, Hezbollah may send delegates to Iran in the hope of having Tehran play the role of mediator and kingmaker among Lebanese factions, but there is insufficient evidence to show that the circumstances are pointing to a return to the bloody and destructive civil war of 1975-1990.