Yesterday Reuters reported that Syrian helicopters bombed the Lebanese village of Arsal. A couple days ago I blogged on Syrian rebel attacks on the Lebanese village of Hermel, but this is a horse of a different color. Both sides are receiving some support from Lebanese fighters, but until recently most of this support was individual and unorganized. The open declaration of Hezbollah‘s military support for the Assad regime last month opened the door to more organized Shi’ite participation, which as I commented is likely to increase after rockets were fired by a rebel group (probably the Free Syrian Army) at the predominantly Shi’ite village of Hermel. Similarly, the Egyptian shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi recently started calling for widespread Sunni fighting against Assad and Hezbollah, although the organization would be provided by rebel groups within Syria. Still, many Lebanese Muslims, both Sunni and Shi’ite, remember the dark days of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) and have tried to avoid getting more involved in Syria’s current civil war.
Since a Syrian helicopter has bombed the mainly Sunni village of Arsal, the calculus for many Lebanese Sunni Muslims has probably changed. There is no question as to the source of the attack: Syrian rebels do not have helicopters, and the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA, the state news outlet) claimed responsibility for the attack as an attempt to target fleeing “terrorists” (i.e. rebels) taking shelter in the town. For many Lebanese Sunni Muslims, this will recall the Syrian involvement in the Lebanese Civil War and the ensuing Syrian occupation of Lebanon, which lasted until the 2005 Cedar Revolution. The 2005 revolution against Syrian military occupation was sparked by the assassination (widely blamed on Syria) of the Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, himself a Sunni Muslim. Since the Syrian regime has now demonstrated its willingness to bomb Lebanese Sunni villages, it is likely that more Lebanese Sunnis will regard non-participation in the conflict as simply willingness to be killed whenever the Syrian regime chooses. The only option to lying down and playing dead, it may now appear, would be to join forces with the Syrian rebels and attempt to accomplish in Syria what was accomplished in Lebanon eight years ago. Indeed, for Lebanese Muslims under the age of 25, those most likely to want to get involved in the Syrian conflict, no memory of the pain of the Civil War will dampen the enthusiasm begotten by the victorious Cedar Revolution, which in just over two months threw off the rule of this same Syrian regime which is now being opposed by rebel groups.
Unless their elders can restrain the hot-headedness of a younger generation, the attacks on two Lebanese villages this week will likely increase Lebanese participation in the Syrian Civil War. Sunni voices calling for keeping Lebanon out of Syria’s war might appeal to the fact that Arsal was the scene of an ambush on the Lebanese army a few months ago, and thus distance themselves as loyal Lebanese from the non-cooperative residents of Arsal, but this is unlikely to be appealing. And given the mosaic of religious groups in Lebanon (seen in this Wikimedia image), increased Sunni and Shi’ite involvement in Syria’s civil war will lead to renewed hostilities within Lebanon between Lebanese. According to a recent non-governmental statistical study cited by the Wikipedia article on Lebanon (for political stakes, there has been no official census since 1932), Sunnis and Shi’ites are about equally numerous in Lebanon, but they are distributed into different areas that often include small enclaves of other groups. This will facilitate inter-communal massacres within Lebanon.
The Syrian regime may have estimated that, having the firepower and a good guess where some rebels (or at least rebel sympathizers) were hiding, they could attack the rebel forces more effectively in the Lebanese village of Arsal. But the cost of this attack will not be measured solely in helicopter fuel and munitions spent. Increased involvement of Sunni Muslims in Lebanon will offset the advantage the regime recently acquired through the increased involvement of Hezbollah, and may be more likely to prompt international military intervention to prevent the Syrian Civil War from completely engulfing its western neighbor. Although Syrian maps of Syria’s borders defy international recognition by claiming Lebanon as merely the most beautiful part of Syria, in this instance acting on the viewpoint that Lebanon was an unruly Syrian province is likely to cost more than the Syrian regime expected.
- Robert Fisk: The Lebanese army fears rise of the Sunni Muslim Salafists (independent.co.uk) provides another take on growing Sunni involvement in the Syrian Civil War.