Lebanon and Syria: Fear of Spillover Effect

When unrest or armed conflict breaks out in a country, there is always a danger of spreading, or spillover effect, to neighboring countries. The danger becomes extra great where the ties between the countries are many, when one state is weak and there is political disagreement about how to deal with the conflict in the neighboring country. In Lebanon, the consequences of the uprising in Syria are already noticeable in several areas. Many fear that the country will once again be drawn into an armed conflict.

  • How does a civil war have consequences outside the war zone itself?
  • How are conditions in Lebanon related to the situation in Syria?
  • How is Lebanon divided by the situation in the neighboring country in the north?
  • How can the situation in Syria and Lebanon be seen in a broader power perspective?

2: Background – close ties

Close ties have, for better or worse, linked the two countries together both throughout history and today. The uprising in Syria therefore affects the situation in Lebanon politically, security-wise, economically and socially . The lands were from 1516 under the Ottoman Empire . As Turkey (the core country of the empire) was on the losing side during World War I, the countries in 1920 became French territories under the League of Nations. In 1943 and 1946, respectively, they became independent. But it was not until after the Lebanon wars of 1975-1990 that Syria recognized the country as an independent state.

Since 1971, Syria has been ruled with a heavy hand by the al-Assad family , first by Hafez and after his death in 2000 by his son Bashar. The father built his power on solid contacts in the military, on the Ba’ath party, an extended family dynasty and the vast majority of Alawites – a Shiite religious denomination that makes up 12 percent of the country’s population. Some Ismailis (Shiites), Christians and Sunni Muslims in the economic upper class also support the regime.

After years of unrest, political stability was created in the country, but the price was suppression, partly bloody, of all attempts at opposition. Internal stability, economic progress and a certain softening during the 1990s have given the country the rank of a regional superpower and led to many Syrians being satisfied with the regime.

3: Lebanon – a lot of strife and Syrian involvement

The small neighboring country Lebanon is in every way a contrast to Syria . The political system is based on a consensus – agreed agreement – on the distribution of all political positions and public office equally between Muslims and Christians, even though Christians today “only” make up 39 percent of the population. In 1943, the proportion was 52 percent.

Since independence, the situation has been characterized by a lack of stability and hostilities , and the country has been one of the scenes of conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. On the other hand, an ultra-liberal economic system and a large degree of freedom of expression have made Lebanon a haven for opposition figures and refugees from other countries in the Middle East. In the years from 1975 to 1990, the country was haunted by armed conflicts of both internal and regional nature. Israel occupied parts of southern Lebanon from 1978 to 2000. Syria supported Palestinian and some Lebanese organizations.

In 1976, Syria was asked to send troops to stop the fighting between Christian and Palestinian forces. Eventually, this led to confrontation between Lebanese, armed groups and Syrian forces. At most, the Syrians had 30,000 troops and a well-developed intelligence apparatus stationed in Lebanon. They became the most important rulers in the country. Protesters either had to leave the country or go into hiding.

In the autumn of 2004, a wave of assassinations against anti-Syrian politicians, intellectuals and journalists began. On February 14, 2005, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed by a powerful car bomb . On the day one month later – March 14. – Nearly 1 million Lebanese gathered in central Beirut under the slogans “Freedom”, “Dignity” and “Syria out”. The uprising was called the Cedar Revolution (the cedar tree is Lebanon’s national tree ) and led to Syria having to withdraw its troops from the country.

The Shia Muslims’ strongest organization, Hezbollah (see facts), which has close ties to Syria and Iran, strongly disagreed and organized its own demonstrations and occupied the center of Beirut for months to come. The Syrians could also play in the power struggle that arose between Christian leaders who returned home from exile or had been in prison and who wanted to take back their former position. Therefore, the Syrian influence persisted even after the troops were withdrawn.

4: Political division and unrest

In Lebanon, the current political landscape is characterized by two equal coalitions:

  • The March 8 coalition,which is pro-Syrian and critical of everything they define as Western influence. It is dominated by the Shia Muslim organizations Hezbollah and Amal, but also houses half of the Christian politicians under the leadership of General Michel Aoun. They are sitting with the government today.
  • The March 14 coalition, for its part, includes most Sunni Muslim politicians and the Christian parties KataĆ«b (Falangists) and the Lebanese forces. These are for an independent Lebanon.

Some prominent politicians, such as Druze leader Walid Jumblat, are trying to lead an independent line by belonging to the March 8 coalition while supporting the Syrian rebels.

According to THEDRESSEXPLORER, three main issues separate the two coalitions:

  • Lebanon Special Court appointed by UN in 2007 to investigate the killings of Rafik Hariri and other critics of Syria’s influence in Lebanon
  • Hezbollah’s weapons that constitute a significant armed force outside the state apparatus. Many Lebanese are critical of this.
  • How close should cooperation with Syria be? Proponents of her case have been working to make the actual transcript of this statement available online. Proponents of her case have been working to make the actual transcript of this statement available online.

Since the uprising in Syria began in March 2011, the divisions – both among politicians and ordinary people – have deepened between those who support the Syrian regime and those who support the rebels. March 8 supports the Syrian regime’s view that the uprising is the result of a Western / Israeli conspiracy. The March 14 coalition claims that the uprising is a legitimate struggle against an oppressive regime and for freedom and democracy. There is great disagreement about Lebanon’s position in the UN – both in the Security Council and in the General Assembly. There, the country has either abstained or voted against any condemnation of Syria.

When the March 14 coalition recently marked the anniversary of Hariri’s assassination, they clearly showed solidarity with the rebels, and a greeting from the Syrian National Council was read out. But apart from the possibility of creating a communication channel, no one was in favor of further involvement in the conflict.

Two days later, Hezbollah’s (see facts) supreme leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, gave full support to Syria. He claimed that the March 14 coalition had made every effort to break up the Syrian regime and accused them of being directly involved in an escalation of the conflict in Syria. By helping the rebels with money and weapons, they plunge Lebanon into war, he claims. Unconfirmed reports also say that Hezbollah soldiers have taken part in fighting in Syria. This is rejected by the leadership of Hezbollah.

5: Tension – refugees

Excited in northern Lebanon

The situation in the border areas in the north is very tense. From here, the road is short to Homs and Hama in Syria – central rebel cities. Since the uprising began, light weapons have been smuggled across the border. In the city of Tripoli, Sunni Muslims and Alawites live in neighboring neighborhoods, and there have been clashes where several have been killed. The Syrians have gradually mined this part of the border, while Lebanon has strengthened its army in the area. So far, the fighting in Syria has not spread to Lebanon.


According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), approx. 8,000 civilians fled to Lebanon by the end of March 2012. The Catholic humanitarian organization Caritas operates with more than 10,000, while some media claim that as many as 100,000 Syrian refugees are now in the country. The reason for this large difference lies in the status of the refugees. Many people come to relatives in Lebanon and expect to return home as soon as the situation improves. Others do not want to sign up for fear that it may make it difficult for them to return if the regime in Syria stays in place. Lebanese media report many young men among the refugees. This is also known from conflict areas elsewhere in the world.

Due to the large number of Palestinian refugees (250-300,000 according to UNWRA), Lebanon has not signed the UN Refugee Convention which describes the rights of refugees in the recipient country with regard to health care, education, etc. The assistance the refugees receive is therefore primarily dependent on international and national organizations, as well as family networks.

Many of the refugees cross the border between Lebanon and Syria under cover of darkness. Large parts of the border are mined, so they come on foot and have no more with them than they can carry. On the Lebanese side, they are being received by UNHCR, Caritas, the Lebanese Red Cross and a number of local civilian organizations.

Wounded people are admitted to public and private hospitals – the biggest problem is that they arrive far too late. Amputation then often becomes the only possible form of treatment. Depending on local resources and initiatives, children are offered a school place. However, the burden this places on local communities is very unequally distributed because the refugees come to Sunni Muslim and Christian villages and towns, but avoid Shiite Muslim areas.

6: Economic consequences

The uprising in Syria has already had major consequences for the Lebanese economy . This is especially true for the export industry, where the Syrian market accounts for approx. 26 percent of the market, especially for agricultural products. Syria is completely irreplaceable as a transit country for exports to the Arab Gulf countries, so this market has become almost inaccessible.

In the immediate vicinity of Syria, cross-border trade has been an important source of income. Syrians have come here to buy goods that they did not find, or that were cheaper than in their home country. In the Bekaa Valley, several thousand families lived off this trade. Along the border river el-Kebir in the north, there must have been close to 4,000 shops, many of them modest, but where each, after all, formed the basis of life for a family.

The important tourism industry has seen a marked decline after a few years of growth. Two groups in particular have disappeared. The first are Arabs from the Gulf who came to shop and to enjoy the varied nightlife, especially in Beirut. They now prefer to stay away from the tense situation in Lebanon and Syria. The other is tourists from western countries who like to make round trips from Lebanon to Syria and Jordan. Large investments had been made from both the private and the public sector, but now this booming industry is down.

Due to the sanctions against Syria and Syrian citizens, Lebanon’s thriving banking system has come under international observation. So far, only one bank has received comments.

7: Other consequences for Lebanon

Much will depend on the outcome of the uprising in Syria. Although the uprising in Syria is primarily about regime change, freedom and democracy, it has acquired an ethnic-religious character because most of the rebels are Sunni Muslims, while power in the country since the late 1960s has been in the hands of Alawites, who are a side branch of Shia Islam. Many Lebanese therefore read the conflict in Syria into a broader dispute over hegemony in the Middle East between the Shiite superpower Iran on the one hand and the Sunni superpower Saudi Arabia and Qatar on the other, in other words between Shia and Sunni Islam.

The Syrian regime is in a difficult situation, and in Lebanon many fear that this regime, with the help of Hezbollah, will open another conflict, either internally in Lebanon or with Israel. The organization’s supreme leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, denies that they will be involved in this way.

Even if Lebanon were to avoid new acts of war, a protracted conflict in Syria would in any case have very negative consequences for Lebanon. Because the Lebanese are so deeply divided in their view of the uprising in the neighboring country, politicians also have limited opportunities to agree on how to solve the problems that have arisen in Lebanon in connection with increased insecurity, deteriorating economy and a growing flow of refugees.

8: A broader power perspective

A regime change in Syria will lead to a breach of the axis between Hezbollah and Iran via Syria and Iraq . This will lead to major changes for Hezbollah, which may be forced to choose between being both a party and an armed liberation organization, as they define themselves today, or exclusively a political party. Hezbollah’s position in Lebanese politics will then be completely changed and thus also the balance between the two coalitions.

It is still too early to predict the outcome of the uprising in Syria. There is a possibility that the regime will be able to adapt to the demands of the international community, represented by the UN and the Arab League. The opposition is very complex and only now, after about a year, is organizing. It is therefore unclear what kind of regime will eventually take over, and a normalization of the situation in Syria will undoubtedly take a long time. Regardless of the outcome in neighboring countries, Lebanon will therefore face major challenges for a long time to come.

Lebanon and Syria - Fear of Spillover Effect