Stop the Syria spillover: towards a security pact

Lebanon is presented with the most serious challenges it has faced in the past decade. The economy is struggling, the internal security situation deteriorating and the country’s neighbors pose real threats. But amidst everything, there are opportunities — not just in newfound offshore oil and gas but also within the country's ingenious population.

As we head into 2013, what can be done to help the country unite, to overcome its challenges and ultimately to grow? Over the course of this week, eight influential figures will address seven important topics, each suggesting one proposal to help the country move forward. 

Today, two leading writers with diametrically opposed views suggest ways to improve Lebanon’s security. Here Hicham Safieddine calls for a security pact to end the Syria spillover, while Saleh el-Machnouk demands Hezbollah be disarmed.

 

Between 1990 and 2005, Lebanon’s main security threat was Israel. The end of the civil war largely restricted the use of arms to liberating South Lebanon from Israeli occupation, a task that came to be dominated by Hezbollah. A quasi-national consensus regarding this role — consolidated under Syrian tutelage — retrieved a semblance of order and control for Lebanese society. The assassination of Rafik Hariri in 2005 did not eliminate Israel as a primary threat, but it ended the already emaciated national consensus around Hezbollah’s right to bear arms. It also reduced Syrian influence in Lebanon, which in turn, for better or for worse, weakened state authority. From 2005 till 2011, an Israeli war, a week-long civil war, the destruction of a Palestinian camp, and a string of assassinations, further eroded any sense of daily security among the population.

In 2011 and 2012, the threats of foreign aggression and domestic strife have been compounded by a third major destabilizing factor: the Syrian uprising. It is likely that Syria (and the sprouting of armed groups in Lebanon linked to the conflict), rather than Hezbollah’s arms, will be the major source of Lebanon’s instability in 2013. A quick visit to Hezbollah-dominated southern Lebanon and another to the Salafi-friendly north confirms this claim. While the south has witnessed very few incidents of domestic insecurity, there is hardly a day in the north where pro and anti-regime militias don’t clash and ordinary people pay the price. Sections of the northern city of Tripoli have been rendered largely uninhabitable while almost the entire border with Syria is off limits.

The stark difference between the security situation in the south and that in the north is due to the differing political agendas of Hezbollah and the Salafi groups respectively. Contrary to worn-out polemics by March 14 coalition pundits, as well as Israeli and US government spokespeople, Hezbollah has proven to be an extremely rational and largely reactive rather than active actor when it comes to its arms. As far back as the 1990s, Hezbollah called for rules of engagement with the occupation forces to save civilian lives and reached such an understanding in 1996. Four years later, following the Israeli withdrawal from most of South Lebanon, the party behaved with restraint that is hard to match in the modern history of revolutionary or resistance movements. It did not conduct a single summary execution against suspected agents of the occupation, but handed them over for trial. Hezbollah has also struck and followed up on prisoner deals with Israel and accepted the presence of 15,000 United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon troops in southern Lebanon to monitor the borders. Even in May 2008, when Hezbollah broke its oath of restricting its weapons use to fighting Israel, its armed offensive against March 14 posts was very limited and a response to a very concrete threat to its land communications network — an indispensable weapon in its long time war with Israel.

A force for stability

More than five years after the 2006 war, Hezbollah in fact has proved a force of stability and deterrence; Israel now thinks twice before any large-scale military aggression. Therefore as long as there is no international will to tackle ongoing Israeli violations of Lebanese security and unless the Lebanese army becomes capable of providing a sustainable and credible alternative of deterrence, talk of disarming Hezbollah is either naïve or misleading.

See also: Former Labor Minister Charbel Nahas on rethinking the economy

Roudi Baroudi on the country's oil and gas

British Ambassador Tom Fletcher on foreign interference

The irony of these calls is exposed when these same voices turn a blind eye or justify the increased militarization of Salafi militias. Unlike Hezbollah, these militias have very loose hierarchical structures and have proven to be trigger-happy. Their deep involvement in the Syrian crisis has led to a mounting spill-over of fighting into Lebanon. The backdoor support of March 14 groups and their arming of rebels inside Syria, now an open secret, has further inflamed tension. Trying to topple the Damascus regime from Lebanon has historically been a dangerous and foolish endeavour with grave consequences to Lebanon’s security in the long run. March 14 politicians' involvement in the armed struggle against the Assad regime is utterly hypocritical, given their calls for restraint regarding Lebanon being used as a base for armed struggle against Israel, and their incessant complaints of Syrian intervention in Lebanon.

Hezbollah is not free of blame either. The party’s role in the Syrian conflict, the extent of which remains unclear, has also had a detrimental effect on internal security. While cognizant of the role Damascus plays in supporting the Resistance, any military support for a regime that has oppressed and bombed its people is hard to justify. Hezbollah should not be expected to shoulder any of the dirty work, and if Damascus is incapable of maintaining its own security it is not clear how it can continue to back the Resistance beyond its borders.

Ending Syria involvement

As the political schism widens and grows more violent, a sustainable solution would entail agreeing to a security pact or understanding on how to deal with the Syrian crisis. An ideal arrangement would be a holistic one. Both factions, March 14 and March 8, would commit to ending any military involvement in Syria and the Lebanese army would see to it that this policy is enforced. March 14 would drop the dubious call for disarming Hezbollah while the latter would reassert and guarantee its restricted use to fighting Israel. A national policy of aiding all Syrian civilian refugees without discrimination would be implemented, while political activism at the grassroots level would be tolerated and protected from sabotage.

All of that may not be enough. A contextualized security strategy dealing with non-state weapons in the country will remain inadequate if economic insecurity is not addressed. Basic economic and social needs from food security to clean water to electric power provision are being ignored by the political elites, loyal to March 8 and March 14. Any remaining integrity of state authority is eroding, thereby creating a vacuum filled by the political factions and their military arms. Tensions will reach a boiling point as the country edges closer towards parliamentary elections slated for the upcoming spring. A security pact could help Lebanon avoid strife in 2013; the status-quo could destroy it.

 

Hicham Safieddine is a Lebanese journalist and researcher

The opinions expressed in this article are the views of the author and not of Executive Magazine

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