The Arab League upped the ante on Sunday. It scrapped its futile observer mission to Syria, recognized the Syrian opposition and even went as far as calling for the deployment of a UN peacekeeping force to end the “vicious cycle of violence.” But in Lebanon, another cycle, one that could be equally vicious, has started to gather alarming momentum, and the fear in Beirut is that the Syrian regime has finally activated its plan to open a new front in the neighborhoods of Tripoli, Lebanon’s volatile northern capital.
Because nothing happens by accident in Lebanon, especially when it comes to simmering tensions between its many religious groups. One of the most dangerous feuds in recent years has been in Tripoli between the Alawites of Jabal Mohsen and the Sunnis of Bab al-Tabbaneh. The sectarian animosity has in the last few days witnessed a worrying level of violence with the deaths of at least three people and the deployment of the Lebanese Special Forces. The area is a Petri dish containing a culture of the region’s most dangerous tensions. It is one that the Syrian regime, helped by its Lebanese allies, has put in a warm and fertile corner of its fiendish laboratory.
There was always the fear that if pressure on Damascus reached critical levels—if the opposition were seen to be in the ascendancy—then the Assad regime would sow instability in Lebanon and use any ensuing unrest to show the world the dark consequences of its downfall.
It tried this tactic before. In 2007, the Nahr al-Bared uprising was almost certainly coordinated by a Syrian government still smarting from its forced departure from Lebanon in 2005. Then, the government of Saad Hariri did not hesitate to commit troops to crush the insurgency. It came at a tragic price—the deaths of over 170 Lebanese soldiers—but the state had acted. (Even if Hezbollah, the so-called defenders of Lebanese sovereignty, sat by and did nothing.) However, today the government is hewn from different timber, and it remains to be seen if it is prepared to quell the fighting.
Bottom line: The Lebanese government must once again act in the best interests of its people. As Kataeb bloc MP Samer Saadeh said on Monday, “The Syrian crisis will be reflected on Lebanon if the cabinet does not order the army to enter all regions and take control of all weapon warehouses.” If Prime Minister Najib Mikati doesn’t take action, he will not only have lost whatever credibility his government has left, but he could be responsible for igniting a touch paper that could very easily plunge the nation into conflict. It’s that simple.
And while we are on the subject, Mikati must rein in (perhaps even fire) Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour, whose defense of the Syrian regime (and his condemnation of the Syrian opposition) at the Arab League meeting on Sunday would have us believe that he is nothing short of a spokesman for Damascus. If so, where does that leave the government?
Mansour should do his job and represent his country’s best interests by supporting all actions that are needed to stabilize the situation in Syria, especially those that will reduce pressure on Lebanon. Advocating non-action as he did by saying that it would “put the country in a dark tunnel” goes beyond his remit. One wonders where his allegiances truly lie.
Sadly, it doesn’t matter how many commando regiments are sent north, if the state does not act, the shameful conclusion we must draw is that the government is in cahoots with Damascus as part of a wider plan to ensure its survival. Lebanon’s policy of not interfering in Syrian affairs is clearly an elastic concept.