Lebanon and the Syrian Civil War: Preventing the Descent Back Into Conflict

Photo by Brandon Aitchison |

This article was featured in GSSR Vol. 1 Issue 1 |

By Andrea Clabough |

Civil wars are often perceived solely as internal tragedies even though they often have devastating impacts beyond their borders. While the Syrian conflict has raged for over a year with no resolution in sight, Syria’s immediate neighbors are arguably in equally precarious positions. Within this regional nexus, Lebanon faces the gravest risks as the Syrian conflict intensifies due to its history of civil conflict spurred by internal insecurity. Despite this dangerous situation, there are several immediate- and medium-term policies that the international community and Lebanon’s central government can implement to prevent the Syrian conflict from engulfing its neighbor.

To fully understand the threats facing Lebanon vis-a-vis the Syrian crisis, it is crucial to understand the parallel regional context of the 1970s that initially pushed Lebanon into civil war. Figuring prominently, then and now, is the  concept of a “security dilemma,” referring to a basic lack of trust and assurance in an uncertain world that a person, community, or state can adequately defend itself from perceived threats; in order to become secure, these actors prepare for future conflict, inadvertently threatening other actors within the system and inducing widespread insecurity.[1] This general insecurity fosters conditions that can result in a spiral into violence.

However, security dilemmas within states usually result from the breakdown of the central authority of the state. This situation brings grievances and fears of domestic groups to the fore; for example, the potential to gain – or lose – political power is a common issue. This creates the perceived need by a state’s constituent communities to prepare against an uncertain future by, for example, stockpiling weapons. These initially defensive measures are often viewed as offensive measures by rival or neutral communities, who resort to similar tactics to enhance their own security, thereby reducing that of others. This dynamic of misperception produces intrastate arms races, hardens group identities, and isolates moderate voices while empowering extremists.[2] At the sub-state level, therefore, security dilemmas can both enable and incentivize violence.

The Security Crisis of the 1970s

The regional context of the early 1970s produced an internal security dilemma within Lebanon, ultimately instigating one of the most destructive civil wars in modern history.  Debate continues within Lebanon today as to which group’s or groups’ actions sparked the security crisis that unfolded in 1975; what is certain, however, is that the influx of a massive Palestinian refugee diaspora into southern Lebanon following the 1967 Arab-Israeli War constituted a destabilizing factor in an already fragile confessional state.[3] The evolving regional security situation precipitated the emergence of an internal security crisis among Lebanon’s confessional communities; the arrival of PLO commandos in southern Lebanon, for example, exacerbated tensions between the native Lebanese Shia community and the largely Sunni Palestinian refugee community.  Likewise, the presence of the military wing of the Palestinian movement, the Fatah organization, forced Sunni Muslims throughout the country to increasingly come to grips with the Palestinian cause, to which Lebanon’s ruling Maronite Christian community felt no allegiance.[4] As a result, the increased Palestinian presence (beyond those Palestinians who came to Lebanon in the aftermath of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War) increasingly placed Lebanon’s constituent communities at odds with one another while pushing older grievances over the state’s weak power-sharing system to the fore.

These issues, however, quickly moved beyond the political and ideological realms. As group identities solidified over the Palestinian crisis, Palestinian commandos ignited an arms race as they utilized their substantial arms caches for operations along the southern border with Israel.[5] Lebanon’s empowered Christian minority, which increasingly saw itself as at odds with the armed Palestinians, began gathering its own armaments to counter them. These actions precipitated a domino effect of mobilization; anticipating violence between the Palestinian and Christian factions, a range of sectarian militias emerged from amongst the Sunni, Shia, and Druze communities.[6] Within a few years, the situation was such that all of Lebanon’s sectarian communities were “armed to the teeth” by the spring of 1975.[7]

With the central government in Beirut increasingly fractured and clearly incapable of addressing the issues related to the Palestinians’ presence, all of Lebanon’s communities understandably sought self-defense as a top priority in a rapidly deteriorating situation. Consequently, the first violent clashes between Christians and Palestinians in April 1975 sparked a chain reaction that led to the eruption of a full-scale civil war within a matter of weeks.[8] After fifteen years of bloodshed and hundreds of thousands of casualties, the Lebanese state was reconstructed in the early 1990s as a revised version of the confessional system that reallocated governing power, primarily to Lebanon’s larger Sunni and Shia communities, in exchange for the disarmament of almost all of the sectarian militias involved in the conflict.

Disturbingly, the situation in Lebanon today has key similarities to the crisis of the 1970s because these key explosive elements are being reproduced by the Syrian conflict. The catalyst for conflict in Lebanon in the 1970s was the influx of large numbers of Palestinian refugees, as a result of the outcomes of both the June 1967 Six Day War and the Palestinians’ defeat in Jordan during Black September in 1970. These major influxes of Palestinians fundamentally altered confessional demographics in Lebanon, making the confessional power-sharing arrangements embodied in Lebanon’s National Pact seem increasingly outmoded and inequitable.

Ties between these refugees and older Palestinian communities in Lebanon grew stronger as the refugee crisis brought existing sectarian grievances to the fore and rival groups acquired the materiel to wage extended conflict. Given that Lebanon has maintained a relatively decentralized confessional governing system substantially similar to that which preceded the civil war, there is a strong possibility that a similar security dilemma could reemerge in the context of the expanding Syrian conflict.

Today, the Syrian crisis is bringing new armed sectarian organizations into Lebanon, specifically, Sunni-dominated anti-Assad militias. The violence in Syria has descended into a roughly Sunni-Alawite civil war with smaller communities, such as Druze and Syrian Christians, caught in the crossfire. Reports throughout the conflict have indicated that the diverse anti-regime forces arrayed against Assad are using neighboring states, and especially their border regions, to coordinate the movement of fighters, weapons, and supplies.[9] The deluge of armaments, given Lebanon’s history with violent conflict, is extremely. The history of civil conflicts in this region and beyond shows that weapons move rapidly across borders, and that it is extremely difficult to control their use or ownership by relying on the artificial boundaries of these states.

In addition to providing materiel for potential conflict in Lebanon, the Syrian conflict is also deepening sectarian divisions by increasing perceptions of threats and grievances.  Like the Palestinians decades earlier, fleeing Sunni refugees from Syria look to their co-religionists in Lebanon for political and logistical support against the Alawi Assad regime.[10] The pleas of the expanding refugee community for support against Assad have aggravated the largely pro-Assad Shia communities around Beirut and in Lebanon’s south; not surprisingly, recent Sunni-led anti-Assad rallies have ended in mob violence.[11]Likewise, the role of Hezbollah as a pro-Iranian (and consequently pro-Assad) Shia militant group actively aiding Assad against the Syrian Sunni opposition movement has only fueled inter-sectarian tensions back in Lebanon.[12] For example, the recent assassination of Lebanon’s Sunni Intelligence Chief, Wissam al-Hassan, has been attributed to Syrian agents acting through Hezbollah and was widely denounced by anti-Syrian government officials throughout the country.[13] The Sunni cleric Ahmad al-Assir has gained prominence in recent months as the ideological leader of an emerging anti-Shia militia.[14]  The Syrian refugee crisis, therefore, has revived and solidified inter-sectarian rivalries such that low-level violence is on the rise throughout Lebanon.

This toxic combination of heightened sectarian divisions resulting from the refugee influx, a divisive foreign crisis, and a growing regional arms trade could rapidly foster a new intrastate security dilemma in Lebanon.  While the situation has not yet reached a crisis level, the almost certain continuation of the Syrian civil war for many months – if not years – makes the threats to its neighbors impossible for the international community to ignore. Even if there appear to be few options to end the crisis in Syria, the international community can still do much to help Lebanon before tragedy ensues. While it should be emphasized that none of these potential policies is a panacea, none are so difficult or costly that they should consequently not be adopted.

1)      Manage the immediate impacts of the refugee crisis. Reports indicate that there are upwards of 130,000 registered Syrian refugees now living in Lebanon; there are likely thousands of additional refugees that remain unregistered, with even worse prospects for securing basic supplies and shelter.[15] Refugee flows, particularly when they are primarily constituted by a single sectarian group, can be highly destabilizing. In the case of Lebanon, the current refugee flows are straining local economies and especially social services, while the government in Beirut has provided little tangible support to overwhelmed local organizations.[16] Lebanon’s history of dealing with massive refugee flows is hardly reassuring. International donors should immediately meet the donor goals proposed by the United Nations for Syria Fund, and take steps to ensure that this growing community possesses the basic requirements for physical and human security for at least the next several months.[17]

2)      Develop medium- and long-term programs to support the refugee community. Refugees are regularly described as a “temporary” problem; often, however, they become a permanent fixture in their adopted countries. There is little reason to expect that the Syrian conflict will end in the near future. The Lebanese government must come to grips with reality and prepare for the assimilation of Syrian groups, with the support and oversight of international refugee organizations including the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This preparation should include, for example, guest worker programs and the integration of refugee children into the Lebanese public education system.

3)      Secure the border areas, with particular emphasis on the arms trade.Lebanon is increasingly becoming awash with fighters and armaments; even if this robust arms trade is targeted toward opponents of the Syrian regime, the movement of weapons through Lebanon is extremely dangerous for that country’s security. As noted earlier, the perception of threat from armed rivals is a key element of an internal security dilemma. The relief agencies already at work in the border regions should coordinate with Lebanese security forces to secure the porous border regions and prevent these areas from becoming lawless havens for armed groups, while protecting and documenting those fleeing the Assad regime.

4)      Bolster the central government and local representative bodies, especially legitimate institutions of law and security. The breakdown of central authority is a critical element in civil conflict; the crisis of the 1970s in Lebanon was largely due to the inability of leaders in Beirut to exercise authority as the country disintegrated.[18] In the current situation, central and local government bodies cannot afford to be overwhelmed, or worse – appear incompetent or irrelevant. The failure to govern effectively creates opportunities for sub-state groups to fill gaps in governance, which can precipitate the collapse of the state.[19] These legitimate political and security institutions, including police, court systems, and local councils, must be empowered to provide essential security and social functions in order to demonstrate a capable leadership. International aid in support of Syrian refugees, for example, should be coordinated and dispersed in conjunction with local authorities.  This focus on partnership will create a positive trend of local ownership of these programs while giving local and state leaders the opportunity to project strength and control over a tense situation.

These and similar policies could and should be seriously considered by all of Syria’s regional neighbors that have felt the ramifications of this conflict.  For Lebanon, however, such policies could be especially important in preserving the country’s security and stability and that of the larger region. At this point, the international community has largely lost the leverage and initiative to meaningfully direct the course of events in Syria.  While the regional consequences of this civil conflict beyond Syria will be felt for generations, the worst impacts may still be preventable.  The international community too often simply accepts the things it cannot change. Now, it is time to change the things it can.

Andrea Clabough is a second-year M.A. candidate in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program. A native of Knoxville, Tennessee, Ms. Clabough graduated from Vanderbilt University in May 2011 with B.A. degrees in Political Science and History.

[1] Daniel Byman, Keeping the Peace: Lasting Solutions to Ethnic Conflicts (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), 17-19.
[2] Ibid., 19-22.
[3] William L. Cleveland and Martin Bunton, A History of the Modern Middle East, 4th ed. (Boulder: Westview Press, 2009), 229–30.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Byman, Keeping the Peace, 142-43.
[6] Ibid., 143.
[7] Cleveland and Bunton, Modern Middle East, 384.
[8] Ibid.
[9] A recent report, for example, specifically cites Lebanon as a haven: Ariel Zirulnick, “For Syrian rebels, a relentless game of cat-and-mouse,” Christian Science Monitor, 19 Nov. 2012, http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2012/1119/For-Syrian-rebels-a-relentless-game-of-cat-and-mouse (accessed 21 Nov. 2012).
[10] Abigail Fielding-Smith and Politi James, “Beirut anti-Syria rally erupts in clashes,” The Financial Times, 22 Oct. 2012, http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/6ccfa43a-1b68-11e2-ab87-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2A5Q8qe00 (accessed 20 Nov. 2012).
[11] International Crisis Group, “A Precarious Balancing Act: Lebanon and the Syrian Conflict,” 22 Nov. 2012, http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/middle-east-north-africa/egypt-syria-lebanon/lebanon/132-a-precarious-balancing-act-lebanon-and-the-syrian-conflict.aspx.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Abigail Fielding-Smith and Roula Khalaf, “Top Security Official Killed in Beirut,” The Financial Times, 19 Oct. 2012, http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/5d9dd9e0-19e8-11e2-a179-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2A5Q8qe00 (accessed 20 Nov. 2012).
[14] Oliver Holmes, “Shootout throws spotlight on Lebanon’s sectarian tinderbox,” Reuters, 12 Nov. 2012,http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/11/12/us-lebanon-clashes-idUSBRE8AB15120121112 (accessed 20 Nov. 2012).
[15] “Spike in Syrian Refugee Numbers,” Al Jazeera, 24 Nov. 2012,http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2012/11/2012112452245115372.html (accessed 24 Nov. 2012).
[16] Reports have indicated, for example, that even basic shelter from the encroaching Lebanese winter is not assured to Syrian refugees.
[17] United Nations agencies have already taken steps in this direction, but require additional emergency support to meet immediate-term needs. See, for example: UN News Centre, “As cold weather sets in, UN agencies deliver winter aid supplies to help Syrians cope,” 23 Nov. 2012, http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=43583&Cr=Syria&Cr1=#.ULO2wIYhWSo. For more information on UN-specific Syrian relief needs and efforts, see: UNHCR, “Syria Emergency – Background,”http://www.unhcr.org/pages/4f86c2426.html.
[18] Byman, Keeping the Peace.
[19] The United States Institute of Peace and the U.S. Army Peacekeeping & Stability Operations Institute, Guiding Principles for Stabilization and Reconstruction (United States Institute of Peace Press, 2009), 8-48.

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