The Syrian Civil War, which has already become an international conflict, threatens to plunge Lebanon possibly back into civil war as well. Lebanon is already home to over 400,000 Syrian refugees and this is already causing problems.
This refugee wave poses two huge problems. The first is that it’s enormously expensive for Lebanon to shelter, care for, and feed so many people. Alas, the “international community,” even those of its members who most loudly denounce Assad’s killing machine, have done far less than they can to help Lebanon (and Syria’s other neighbors) manage the refugee burden. The second, and much more dangerous, consequence is that most Syria’s refugees are Sunnis, and their growing presence raises the anxiety of non-Sunnis in Lebanon, especially the Shia.
Demographics and politics are more tightly intertwined in Lebanon than in most other countries, and the longer Syria’s war drags on and the longer Syrian refugees stay in Lebanon, the worse the prognosis for peace in Lebanon.
But there are even more dangerous forces at play. Iran and Hezbollah, Assad’s closest allies, are determined to save his regime. As they see it, the Syrian civil war is part of a wider Sunni-Shia struggle in which Sunni Arab states, principally Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have decided to topple Assad as part of their larger goal of weakening Iran. From Hezbollah’s standpoint, that would be a bad outcome. Iran is its main patron and Tehran relies on Syria as a conduit for supplying Hezbollah forces.
Not surprisingly, Iranian personnel are on the ground in Syria, aiding Assad’s army and paramilitaries. And now Hezbollah, in a roll-the-dice gamble, has sent its fighters in to help Assad, most immediately to establish control over Qusayr, which connects Damascus to the Syrian coast and thus to historic Alawite bastion between Latakia and Tartus. Assad and his minions have decided that they cannot vanquish the insurgency across Syria; their Plan B is to consolidate control over its central and coastal regions. Help from Iran and Hezbollah is crucial to this strategy. So too is support from Russia, which continues to arm Assad and to provide diplomatic cover in the UN Security Council.
But Iranian arms supplies to Hezbollah via Syria are something that Israel cannot abide, and it has launched attacks aimed at sending a message. The question is whether Israel will up the ante if Tehran and Hezbollah aren’t deterred by its shots across their bow. Then there’s the issue of what Israel will do if Russia in fact delivers the S-300 air-defense system to Assad. So there are some big shoes yet to drop. What’s certain is that if they do, they will land on Lebanon.
This biggest reason why I expect the US and its NATO allies to eventually intervene in Syria is because of the threat that countries such as Iraq and Lebanon would be engulfed as well by their own civil wars. I just don’t think that proponents of Syrian intervention realize how massive and expensive in both blood and treasure the intervention will have to be in order to be successful.