The destinies of Syria and Lebanon have been intertwined since the days of French colonial rule, in between the two world wars. It is for this reason that the ongoing civil war in Syria has had its impact on Lebanon. Lebanon is more divided on the issue of the Syrian uprising than any other country in the region.
The Syrian regime has dominated its smaller Lebanese neighbor since the mid-1970s. It has loyal allies and sworn enemies. The Syrian crisis threatens to escalate tensions between and within Lebanon’s largest religious communities, all of whom have a complex relationship with Syria’s President Bashar Assad. The Shiite-Muslims of Lebanon overwhelmingly support the Syrian government of Bashar Assad. Hezbollah, in particular, has a close alliance with Assad. The vast majority of Sunni-Muslims in Lebanon support the largely Sunni-led uprising in Syria. The Christians are divided between political parties that rely on Assad’s support. Gen. Michel Aoun, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, is allied with Hezbollah and Assad, while those Christian parties who are part of the March 14 Movement (allied with the Saudis and the U.S.) strongly oppose Syria and the Assad regime’s influence in Lebanon.
Joseph Hakim is a Lebanese native and President of the International Christian Union (ICU). In Hakim’s view, the jihadi forces within the Syrian opposition and Hezbollah on the other side, have used the conflict in Syria to ethnically cleanse the Christians. According to Hakim, the indigenous Christian minority in Syria is being “forced out of their native cities, towns, and villages.” Hakim bemoaned the passivity of the free world as it witnessed Christians being slaughtered, churches firebombed, priests being beheaded, and bishops kidnapped. “I feel that I am being accurate in calling what is happening genocide.”
As far as Hakim is concerned, there is a coordinated effort to force the indigenous Christian communities in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria out of the Middle East. He sees the conflict in Syria as a war between the Shiite forces sponsored by Iran and supported by Hezbollah on the Assad regime side, with the Sunni jihadist side being sponsored and supported by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey. In the Lebanese context, however, Hakim considers Saad Hariri as the leader of the Sunni forces, and fears that he is taking orders from the Saudis, which will ultimately result in Al-Qaida insertion into Lebanon. That is true particularly in Sunni-majority cities like Tripoli and the Palestinians camps. “Hezbollah,” Hakim maintained, “is the strongest party in Lebanon, and it is much stronger than either the Lebanese Army or the government.”
Hakim cited the recent clash near Sidon, Lebanon’s third largest city, as an example of how Lebanon might get embroiled in the Syrian conflict. The Lebanese Army launched an operation against the Sunni firebrand preacher Ahmad Assir in Arba, east of Sidon, after Assir’s gunmen ambushed soldiers at a checkpoint near the complex Assir commanded. Eighteen soldiers and at least 28 gunmen were killed in the 25-hour operation. Assir fled and his whereabouts are unknown. Of the 100 fighters in Assir’s radical group, Hakim contended that many were Syrians, Palestinians, and other Sunni Arabs.
“The influx of over a million Syrian refugees into Lebanon [with a population of four million],” Hakim said, “Has put a strain on Lebanon socially and economically. Violence and crime have risen dramatically.” Lebanese (Sunni) Prime Minister Najib Mikati attributes the growing crime and violence rates in Lebanon to the overflow from the Syrian conflict. Mikati declared that in January (2013) alone, 700 Syrians were caught breaking the law in Lebanon.
On May 13, 2013, the International Crisis Group released its Middle East Report, opining that the influx of over one million Syrians into Lebanon “Aggravates state dysfunction, taxes Lebanon’s already limited resources and, by reigniting fears of a shift in the sensitive confessional make-up, risks renewing violent conflict in a state still recovering from its devastating civil war of the 1970’s and 1980’s.”
According to economic analysts in Lebanon, the civil war in Syria will have an effect on the size of foreign investments in Lebanon. The Land of Cedars depends on foreign investments to plug its current account deficit (in trade and services), which is estimated at $5.6 billion by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or 14.4% of the country’s GDP. Economic experts believe that this might be a cause for instability in Lebanon.
Christians in Lebanon, more than any other confessional group, are alarmed by the demographic balance that is continuously tilting against them. The current flood of refugees from Syria harks back to the community’s experience with Palestinian refugees, whose initial short-term resettlement turned into a massive, largely Sunni, long-lasting, militarized presence. This feeds into the conviction that Lebanon’s Sunni community, and more specifically the Islamists in their midst, are being empowered. There is also concern in the Christian community that once the Syrian conflict ends, these jihadi might turn their sights on Lebanon.
In Hakim’s opinion, Christians lack strong and charismatic leadership in both Syria and Lebanon. The lack of Christian unity in Lebanon has undermined the Christian voice in the affairs of the Lebanese state. And in Syria, the ongoing bloodletting between Sunnis and Shiites provides them with an opportunity to “finish off what was left behind by the Ottoman Turks.” Hakim was referring to the genocide perpetrated during WWI on the Christian Armenians in which an estimated one million had perished by 1918, while hundreds of thousands had become homeless and stateless refugees. Christian Greeks and Assyrians too were attacked and expelled from Turkey. By 1923, virtually the entire Armenian population of Anatolian Turkey had disappeared. Hakim stressed the point that Muslim persecution of the large Christian minorities in Egypt, Iraq, and Syria, and the gradual disappearance of these Christian communities (those in Libya and Tunisia have largely disappeared already), are indicative of the genocidal intentions of the jihadi Muslims.
Joseph Hakim and the board of the International Christian Union (ICU) recommended that the free democratic world help create safe havens for religious and ethnic minority groups in what is today Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon (once colonial possessions of Britain and France). He proposed these safe havens in the form of recognized states with security guarantees from the U.S. and the E.U. states, as well as U.N. protection. This would include a Shiite state in Southern Iraq, a Sunni state in the heartland of Syria and Iraq, a Kurdish state in northern Iraq and northeastern Syria, a Druze state in southern Syria, and respectively, Christian and Alawi states in Lebanon and northwestern Syria. “This,” said Hakim, “does not mean that we need to have population transfers. Rather, it means that areas of Christians, Alawi, Kurdish or Druze majority would become safe havens and provide better representation for their people.”
In conclusion, Hakim stated, “I am hoping that people in the free world would have the same feeling of compassion towards the persecuted Christians in the Middle East as they have towards the Palestinians, who do not necessarily deserve that.”
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