News Column

Syria Escalation Will Hurt Lebanon

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A further escalation of the confrontation, now in its sixth month, between the Syrian government and opposition groups seeking democratic change in Syria, will spill over to Lebanon and put the country's security and stability in jeopardy, political analysts warned Monday.

They also said that Western calls issued by President Obama and European leaders for Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down are not serious, but are aimed at extracting political concessions from the regime.

"The Big Powers' provocation against the Syrian regime is aimed more at gaining political concessions from the regime than at toppling it," Professor Fadia Kiwan, head of the political sciences department at the Saint Joseph University, told The Daily Star.

She said the United States and other Western countries have for long been urging Syria to sever its links with Iran and Hezbollah and change its hard line stance on the U.S.-sponsored Middle East peace process.

Syria has rejected these demands made by the Obama administration and previous U.S. administrations.

"The Western pressure on Syria is not aimed at introducing reforms and freedoms in the country. Rather, it is aimed at serving the Western interests in the region. After all, the West has maintained relations with the Syrian regime for 40 years," Kiwan added.

Talal Atrissi, an expert on Iran and Middle East affairs, ruled out the possibility of the regime's collapse in Syria despite a growing movement of discontent at home and Arab, regional and international pressures on Assad.

"I am not convinced that the Western states are serious in their demand for Assad to step down because the alternative to the Assad regime is not reassuring for them," Atrissi told The Daily Star.

Assad is facing Western calls to step down over his harsh crackdown on more than five months of protests in which the U.N. says around 2,000 civilians have died, but he said Syria would not accept outside interference.

In a defiant interview broadcast on Syria's state TV Sunday night, Assad scoffed at the Western calls to quit.

Atrissi said Assad's TV appearance showed that the beleaguered president was confident about his position despite the confrontation with protesters at home and external pressure.

Bordering Lebanon, Iraq, Israel, Turkey and Jordan, Syria is a key player, wielding influence because of its alliance with Iran and its role in Lebanon, despite ending a 29-year military presence there in 2005. It also has sway in Iraq and supports groups like Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah.

Both Kiwan and Atrissi voiced fears that if the confrontation between the government and opposition groups dragged on in Syria, it would have a direct negative impact on the security situation in Lebanon. They also warned that Hezbollah would take a tougher stance if Assad's government collapsed.

"The security situation will not wait for the breakdown of the regime in Syria to deteriorate. There are three security spots that can be ignited in the event of a military escalation in Syria: The Israel-Hezbollah front in the south; the Palestinian refugee camps' and Tripoli," Kiwan said.

Israeli officials have warned that Hezbollah might seek to explode the tense situation on the Lebanese-Israeli border in the south in order to divert attention from the uprising in Syria.

The northern city of Tripoli has been the scene of demonstrations between pro- and anti-Assad supporters in the past months as well as occasional skirmishes between pro-Syria Alawite and anti-Syria Sunni groups in Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen, reflecting the political and sectarian split in Lebanon over the unrest in neighboring Syria.

Kiwan said if the regime in Syria collapses, Hezbollah will definitely escalate its political position.

"Syria is Hezbollah's first defense line. If this line collapses, Hezbollah will adopt a tougher attitude toward the Lebanese state, the [March 14] opposition, the international tribunal and the tribunal's indictment," she said. "It will be a defensive-offensive position."

"Hezbollah is directly concerned with stability in Syria. The party will not wait for the collapse of the regime in Syria to act," Kiwan said.

A Hezbollah M.P. and an official, contacted by The Daily Star, both refused to comment on how the party would react to the possibility of a change in government in Syria.

Atrissi said Hezbollah will be a loser from a possible regime change in Syria, but it will not begin the escalation.

"If the Assad regime collapses, Hezbollah will be in a worrisome and embarrassing position, especially with regard to the resistance.

The Syrian regime is currently providing Hezbollah with all kinds of political, military and moral support. Such support will not be secure under a new government, especially if it is backed by the United States," said Atrissi, a lecturer at the state-run Lebanese University.

"Hezbollah will not initiate the escalation. But if the other [March 14] parties decided to escalate the situation in order to achieve political gains over the collapse of the current Syrian government Hezbollah will respond with a similar escalation, which will subsequently destabilize the security situation," Atrissi said.

Hezbollah is facing two tough challenges: A possible government change in Syria and the U.N.-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), which has indicted four Hezbollah members in the 2005 killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Hezbollah has denied any involvement in Rafik Hariri's assassination.

Hezbollah officials have accused the opposition's Western-backed March 14 parties of counting on the collapse of Assad's government as well as the STL's indictment to weaken the party's popularity at home and tarnish its image in the Arab world.

Since the popular upheaval began in Syria in mid-March, Hezbollah officials have refrained from commenting on the fast-moving dramatic developments there. This was in sharp contrast with the party's stance which publicly praised and encouraged the popular revolts in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain.

Hezbollah has already suffered badly by the Syrian uprising for adopting the Syrian regime's official line in blaming the unrest on armed extremist gangs and outside agitators. Angry Syrian protesters have torn down and burned Hezbollah's pictures, according to images posted on YouTube.

Analysts say Hezbollah, a key player in the new government formed in June, was in a bind given the platform on which it has built support as a defender of the peoples' rights, freedom and a resistance leader.

The party has come under harsh criticism for backing the Arab Spring everywhere except Syria.