Over the past week, we have seen the first real case of sectarian violence spilling over from Syria into neighboring Lebanon. In clashes in and around the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, at least five people have been killed in clashes that are, as I write this, winding down following the deployment of the Lebanese army.
This may seem like an odd time, then, to pour cold water on the risks of Syria’s sectarian conflict reigniting dormant civil conflicts in Lebanon and also Iraq. To be sure, there is a real danger the violence in Syria will spill over into neighboring countries, just not in the way that most suppose.
Lebanon and Iraq are both scarred by sectarianism and civil conflict. Lebanon has suffered from periodic outbursts of fighting in its short history, but the civil war of 1975-1990 looms largest in the country’s historical memory. In Iraq, meanwhile, the maelstrom of violence that followed the poorly conceived U.S. invasion in 2003 peaked between 2005 and 2007, when factions of Sunni and Shiite Arabs fought a brutal civil war that ended with entire neighborhoods of Baghdad “cleansed” of one sect or the other — and with Iraq’s Shiite Arabs ultimately and decisively victorious.
It is only natural, then, given the troubled recent past of each country, that we worry about the ways in which the violence in Syria might reignite the still-hot embers of those conflicts. Though it might seem counterintuitive, in both countries that is unlikely.
In Iraq, the decisive way in which Shiite Arabs won the civil war combined with the successful U.S. effort to build and support Iraqi security forces makes it difficult for an insurgency to pose a strategic threat to the government. Although low-level political violence very much continues to be a feature of Iraq’s landscape, the way in which ethno-sectarian violence plummeted in 2007 points toward a new balance of power that any insurgent group would have a tough time seriously challenging. Car bombs may go off in Baghdad markets, but U.S. policymakers spend more time worrying about whether the Iraqi state is too strong, not whether it is too weak.
In Lebanon, meanwhile, a very similar balance of power has been established in the wake of a brief conflict in 2008 in which Hezbollah and militias associated with its political allies routed primarily Sunni rivals on the streets of Beirut and elsewhere. The Lebanese Civil War that ended in 1990 after 15 years of fighting lasted so long in part because military power was so multipolar — many militias were capable, at any given time, of defending territory and challenging rivals. In the summer of 2008, by contrast, Lebanese saw clearly that no other armed faction in Lebanon — not even the Lebanese armed forces — poses a credible threat to Hezbollah’s dominance.
It is very unlikely that anything that happens — or does not happen — in Syria will seriously challenge the established balance of power in either Iraq or Lebanon. But that does not mean the conflict will not spill over into either country.
It is difficult to determine what, exactly, is driving the conflict in northern Lebanon right now. Although it is easy to assume the fighting in Syria is affecting what is taking place — and it certainly is — it is unclear what exactly caused the clashes. Some reports have pointed toward a long-standing dispute between two families, while others mention the arrest of an alleged Sunni militant leader. Regardless, and despite the deadly nature of the clashes, the picture of a Lebanese youth rushing a water pipe into the combat zone suggests the fighting was not terribly serious on a relative scale.
For civil war to resume in Lebanon, factional leaders would have to calculate that wider clashes would carry benefits that outweigh the costs of a broader conflict, but there is no evidence that even one of Lebanon’s major sectarian leaders believes this. In fact, none of Lebanon’s sectarian leaders have an interest in this kind of fighting growing into something larger. The bigger concern for Lebanese will be something akin to what happened in 2007, when Sunni militants operating out of the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon fought Lebanese security forces for weeks. The militants, led by a man who had either been recently released or had recently escaped from Syrian custody, provoked the Lebanese armed forces into eventually leveling the camp and displacing tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees. (Anti-Palestinian sentiment, in addition to the limited capabilities of the Lebanese armed forces, which was reliant on heavy artillery, help explain why the entire refugee camp was razed.)
In Iraq, meanwhile, it is also possible that Sunni militants might infiltrate across the border from Syria and wreak havoc. Again, the concern will not so much be that extremist acts will actually challenge the balance of power or start a larger conflict in Iraq, but rather that such actions might cause Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government to adopt even more heavy-handed policies toward its political enemies.
Overshadowing all of this are the vast stores of chemical and biological weapons that remain in Syria. U.S. policymakers and officials from neighboring countries will most worry about the proliferation of these weapons. And if the 2007 fighting in Nahr al-Bared offers an ugly model for what “spillover” from Syria might look like, the U.S. response to the fighting — it provided emergency supplies of arms and other military equipment to the Lebanese armed forces — is a model for how Washington should partner with Syria’s neighbors to contain the effects of violence today.
The United States, uniquely, has positive relations with the security services of each of Syria’s immediate neighbors. Those relationships, built up over decades, could turn out to be quite useful as the United States works with Syria’s neighbors to avert the spillover that so many believe is inevitable, but that is in no one’s interests.
Andrew Exum is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and teaches a course in low-intensity conflict at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. He blogs at Abu Muqawama. His WPR column, Abu Muqawama, appears every Wednesday.
- Lebanon’s Most Wanted Sunni Terrorist Blows Himself Up in Syria (iranaware.com)