When considering the deployment of a nation’s military to support peacekeeping or stability operations, national interest usually trumps morality. In the 1994, the US did not intervene to stop the Rwandan genocide in which nearly a million Tutsis were butchered by the Hutus because it did not threaten US interests. Yet just a few years later, the US quickly became involved in the Yugoslavian Wars, where the carnage was a fraction of the Rwandan scale because instability in Europe does threaten US interests. Similarly, in the last two years, the US supported Libyan freedom fighters in toppling long-time dictator Moammar Qaddafi, while doing very little to help the Syrian resistance, whose casualties far eclipse those of Libya. Clearly, the US saw Qaddafi’s ouster as justifiable payback for his many offenses, but the carnage in Syria worth little more than public condemnation. Regardless whether Syria’s actions currently affect the US national interest, it is imperative that the US reconsider its position in light of new indications that hostilities in Syria are spilling over into Lebanon. Instability in Lebanon would necessarily draw Israel into the equation, which would consequently inflame the situation, and potentially lead to a region-wide escalation. The US must act very soon to lead a multinational effort in support of a cease-fire in the Syrian Civil War, otherwise violence in Lebanon is likely to gain momentum and reach a crisis level that will boil over into the heart of the Middle East.
The primary driver of a potential expansion of the Syrian civil war into Lebanon is the sharp polarization of the populations of both nations along Islamic sectarian fault lines. The ruling Alawites in Syria are Shia, while opposition forces are Sunni. In Lebanon, the demographics are similar, but the State power sharing structure is far more equitable for each party. Currently, Lebanon’s official policy is to remain neutral on the Syrian civil war. Predictably, Sunni politicians and clergy have condemned the violence and are in support of the Syrian opposition, while the terror group Hezbollah, which is part of the ruling coalition, is Shia and openly supports the Assad regime.
Recently, Hezbollah has been mounting armed, cross-border operations in support of the Syrian dictatorship, and has been committing domestic acts of “retribution” against those supporting Syrian opposition forces. For example, a Lebanese soldier, who is Shia, shot and killed a Sunni Sheikh who was on his way to a rally in support of the Syrian opposition. The disposition of this soldier is currently the focal point of national debate. He is being used as the unwitting “rope” in a tug-of-war between Hezbollah and Lebanese Law Enforcement. This incident and others like it represent how deeply the particular denomination of Islam is woven into a people’s collective identity and how it transcends tribal, ethnic and national allegiance.
The potential flash point in Lebanon is that existing denominational fault lines may be exacerbated by each party’s respective position regarding the Syrian Civil War, in which case the ever-present sectarian friction would evolve and expand into its own, distinct conflict and perhaps even civil war. Currently, indicators point that this scenario will likely come to pass, if left unchecked.
Historically, internal conflict in Lebanon causes a mass migration of refugees into Israel due to common family, tribal and ethnic ties that transcend the borders. This presents a security risk as these refugee movements tend to provide cover for the infiltration of various terrorists, insurgents and insurrectionists whose stated purpose is to destroy Israel or to kill as many Israelis as possible. In this event, Israel will act to defend itself by securing the border and restricting traffic along known rat-lines in the north.
Typically, Israel’s Arab neighbors condemn any its defensive acts, no matter how justified. With the new political reality in Egypt, it is likely that nation’s Islamist government will take a harder stance than usual in its condemnation of Israeli defensive operations. With this dynamic, the threat of a regional escalation is likely under present conditions.
Current events in the region have not exactly evolved as they have coincidentally. Syria is an Iranian client state, and the current conflict represents a significant threat to Iranian interests. If the government of Syrian President Bashar al Assad was to fall, Iran would lose not only its sole, close ally and trading partner, it would also lose a key facilitator and state supporter of another Iranian client, Hezbollah.
For decades, Syria, with Iranian backing has exercised substantial influence in Lebanese affairs by supporting Hezbollah. This support has spanned from in its rise from obscure terror group, through its political genesis as an extremely small minority party to its present position as the key player in Lebanon’s ruling coalition. Essentially, Iran is the brain and the checkbook, while Syria is the facilitator for Hezbollah, providing access, resources, technical training and occasionally some muscle such as with the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. It is through this alliance that Iran can manipulate Lebanon’s internal affairs in ways conducive to its interests and damaging to those of Israel and the US. It has done so very effectively to date.
However, if the Assad regime falls, all of that goes away. Iran loses most of its regional clout and Hezbollah loses its most important patron, which is why the latter has been crossing the border to conduct Direct Action Operations against Syrian opposition groups. Some intelligence hits indicate that they are getting their marching orders directly from Tehran.
Something must be done to balance the equation.
Courses of Action
Ideally, the US would lead diplomatic efforts to organize and support limited military action on the part of the Arab League, the UN or NATO to create a safe haven for Syrians being persecuted. As usual, Russia and China have come down on the wrong side of a moral issue and have used their veto to prevent a UN resolution to stop the carnage. China is a rational actor and can be cajoled through diplomatic engagement and of course, commercial concessions. The US should be undertaking this now. Russia is a different story though. The Russian veto would have been an easy diplomatic obstacle to navigate if the US had not unilaterally shelved plans for East European Missile Defense System. Unfortunately, that is a card the US can no longer play.
The options for the US and the West at this point are very limited and none of them are very attractive. The Arab League, as usual, does not want to intervene and the UN is deadlocked by vetoes. Between European involvement in Afghanistan and the recent action in Libya, NATO member nations have reached the limits of their respective military capacity and national will. Unilateral American action is unlikely as well, for the same reasons. However, recent news reports indicate that the US may be favor an irregular solution by discretely supporting Syrian rebels. This course of action would be ill-advised because recent Congressional testimony by US intelligence officials demonstrates that very little is known about Syrian opposition leaders, their ideologies, their sympathies towards the West and most importantly, their intentions for a post-Assad Syria. At this point, the US can ill afford a third Egypt (Libya being the second) in which dictators who provided stability and a ruthless persecution of Islamic terrorists were replaced by Islamist governments, hostile to the West and sympathetic towards terrorists.
The US must act very soon to lead a multinational effort in support of a cease-fire in the Syrian Civil War, otherwise violence in Lebanon is likely to gain momentum and reach a crisis level that will boil over into the heart of the Middle East. The ideal course of action is the humanitarian one in which a safe haven is established for no other reason than to stop the bloodshed. The US should lead a multinational diplomatic effort to bring Russia and China on board with the notion of simply acting to alleviate human suffering. The intent should not be to topple the Assad regime, as not enough is known about the opposition’s leadership. There are indications that some are Islamic radicals. Before the US offers support to them, this must be confirmed or denied. Normally, when supporting an insurgency against a hostile regime, the sponsoring power has some influence or at least some knowledge of who will be replacing that regime. But if the news reports are correct, clearly, the US hasn’t learned from Egypt and Libya.
De Oppresso Liber