It is hard to miss the specter of the Syrian conflict while visiting Lebanon. The refugees, the clashes, the sporadic car bombings, the economic downturn and even the graffiti on the walls scream Syria. Just last Saturday, as some Lebanese were celebrating the fall of Syrian border town Yabrud to regime forces aided by Hezbollah, Sunni-Alawite clashes resumed in Tripoli and a suicide bomber struck in Bekaa.
For reasons related to the magnitude of the spillover, the increasing sectarian tension, Hezbollah’s role, the regional bickering and the fear of a presidential vacuum, the contained instability could collapse if Lebanon is left with no political strategy and no international help.
Between Yabrud and Tripoli
By virtue of geography, demographics, and politics, Lebanon is the most shaken by the conflict out of all Syria’s neighbors. From the beginning of the armed struggle, Lebanese fighters crossed the unmarked border into Syria either to help the embattled Assad regime or the rebel groups. Hezbollah’s decision, however, to intervene directly and en masse in the Syrian war last May, marked a turning point in the repercussions and the intensity of the spillover into Lebanon.
While Hezbollah defends its involvement as a preemptive strategic measure to protect Lebanon and keep extremists away from the border, so far the move has done the exact opposite. Terrorist groups in Syria such as the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria are more prevalent in Lebanon today, and see in Hezbollah’s involvement an invitation to strike inside Lebanese territory. The Bekaa bombing on Saturday, claimed by al-Nusra and which took the life of a Hezbollah security member, was the number 14 such attack this year according to Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk, and signifies a new trend in the threat facing the country.
It is hard to see how Hezbollah’s strategy will work given that there is no end in sight to the Syrian conflict, and that security strategies almost always fall short on foreign land, especially when not accompanied by a political roadmap.
Sectarian Sunni-Shiite tension is also on the rise inside Lebanon. The Tripoli clashes between Bab Tebaneh and Jabal Mohsen have only become more aggressive as the fighting in Syria intensifies, and the Lebanese army’s efforts have been rendered futile in restoring the calm.
Adding to the turbulence are looming critical benchmarks for Lebanon. A new president should ideally be voted by the parliament into office by May 25, but the deepening divisions and lack of consensus on a candidate could promise a political vacuum.
Interestingly, the elections and the desire of many political figures to become the head of state is repositioning alliances and coalitions inside Beirut. The March 8 and March 14 split is being blurred when it comes to voting in the next president, with Michel Aoun (March 8) engaging with the Hariri camp (March 14), and Samir Gaagaa (March 14) and showing readiness to talk to Hezbollah (March 8). Several Christian leaders appear to be playing musical chairs in attempt to get the 65 parliamentary votes and make it to Baabda, the residence of the president of Lebanon.
The pool of presumed candidates –all unannounced as of yet – includes Aoun and Gaagaa, former President Amin Gemayel, former Parliamentarian Jean Obeid, the head of the army Jean Kahwaji and the head of the central bank Riad Salameh. Other less known names are being considered, as is the option of extending the term of current President Michel Suleiman. Meeting the presidential deadline is essential for Lebanon and getting a civilian face after two heads of military could help in promoting political consensus and easing regional tension.
The Syrian conflict is nowhere near ending and containing its repercussions starts with ensuring political stability, strengthening the Lebanese army and seeking more help from the international community, especially on the issue of refugees. None of that can be properly achieved with a presidential vaccum. Even during its civil war, Lebanon did not allow for a presidential vacuum and the current situation should be no exception.
*This post originally appeared in Al-Arabiya