With a stop-gap cabinet, extended-term parliament, stalled economy, small scale wars erupting every now and then, missiles falling next to the presidential palace, or on Israel, and a general scare from random car bombings, Lebanon is reeling. But the good news is that things might not necessarily get worse, even if the US 5th Fleet—now parked off of the country’s coast—fires its terrifying Tomahawk missiles at targets in neighboring Syria.
A civil war in Lebanon has been long overdue, especially after sectarian conflict broke out in neighboring Syria. But pundits have been wrong so far. For all the predictions that Syria’s flames will eventually engulf Lebanon, the latter has proven resilient and showed surprising ability in taking in more than one million Syrian refugees.
These mostly homeless, unemployed and desperate refugees, the majority of which are Sunni, were expected to turn militant, join the ranks of radical Islamist groups and try to avenge Hezbollah’s participation in the Syrian war. Yet these refugees—while straining Lebanon’s resources—have behaved thus far. Perhaps if these refugees were the fighting type, they would have stayed in Syria instead of fleeing to the relative safety of Lebanon.
In addition to the good behavior of the refugees, Lebanon’s domestic factors have kept civil war at arm's length. Because Hezbollah runs a formidable militia and an unparalleled intelligence network, the party has been dominating the country’s security scene for some time. Even when the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) engaged Sunni firebrand cleric Ahmad Al-Assir in the southern city of Sidon in June, it was Hezbollah that offered the required intelligence and logistic support that helped locate and dismantle Assir’s small militia.
Hezbollah’s strength has forced its rivals to lay low. The Druze of Mount Lebanon, by far the fiercest fighters despite their small numbers, conceded to Hezbollah after a quick fight in 2008. Since then, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt has tried to leverage his political influence by creating—along with lighter-weight politicians such as President Michel Suleiman—a bloc that he called the Center Bloc.
Other non-Muslim Lebanese, such as the Christian factions of Michel Aoun and Samir Geagea, who fought ferocious battles during the country’s civil war between 1975and 1990, have remained passive. Aoun has positioned himself largely as an ally of Hezbollah, Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad and Iran. Geagea has taken the side of Lebanon’s Sunnis and the Gulf Cooperation Council. Both Christian factions have remained unarmed, thus posing no threat to Hezbollah’s undisputed control of the country.
So Hezbollah, Lebanon’s main power, has no interest in rocking the boat and taking the country into civil war—at least, not yet. Many argued that the party would start a war if its patrons in Iran, and maybe Syria, instructed it to do so.
But Iran aside, we know that Assad has long wished to bring Lebanon into Syria’s inferno. Assad’s reasoning has always been that if he goes down, so will the region extending from the Caspian to the Mediterranean. In fact, in August 2012, Lebanese police caught former lawmaker and Assad protégé Michel Samaha red-handed as he was transporting bombs from Assad aides to Lebanon to be detonated against some targets.
Hezbollah has yet to comment on Samaha’s arrest. The party’s silence may suggest that it wishes to avoid talking about a contentious point on which it disagrees with its ally, the Syrian president.
Last month, the Lebanese judiciary indicted two Sunni clerics with ties to Assad on charges of bombing two mosques in the northern city of Tripoli that resulted in the death of over forty civilians. Assad’s foiled plots and subsequent bombings suggest that he is keen to see Lebanon go up in flames, a scheme not necessarily popular with the ruling Hezbollah, which has chosen to remain silent about Assad’s ambitions.
So how will a US attack on Assad targets affect Lebanon? So far, both Hezbollah and Iran have threatened to respond or jump into the fray should Assad be attacked. But apart from the bravado, neither Hezbollah nor Iran seem interested in opening more fronts, and would rather focus on the one they have inside Syria.
Along these lines, in what seems to be an info op, Hezbollah has put out articles suggesting that as long as the American strike does not threaten Assad existentially, its response against Israel will be muted.
When the dust from an expected US strike on Assad settles, Hezbollah will probably wage a media campaign praising Assad’s victory, since the Syrian president will be allowed to remain standing, if we are to believe statements from US officials.
Hezbollah staying out the US–Syria confrontation will be music to the ears of most Lebanese. Their country will remain dangerous and volatile, but this time missiles won’t be raining on their heads.