On February 14, 2005 a car bomb exploded in downtown Beirut, killing Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and twenty-two others. It was the most significant attack in a string of assassinations in 2005 and 2006 that aimed to disrupt the Lebanese political establishment. Despite ensuing chaos, Lebanon did not devolve into civil war. Instead, enraged civilians ignited the Cedar Revolution, protesting for a month and bringing down the government. The revolution curtailed Syrian involvement in domestic Lebanese affairs and demonstrated that the Lebanese are capable of peaceful restraint in the face of political disaster.
Yet today, several major media outlets are speculating as to when and how—rather than if—the Syrian crisis will instigate Lebanese pandemonium. There are two reasons for this posturing. First, ties between Syria and Lebanon are so deep and multidimensional that it is difficult to conceive of war being confined to only one of them. The countries share historical and cultural legacies as well as similarities in sectarian composition. There is an overt alliance between Hezbollah, a Shia militant group and political party, and the Assad regime. Second, while Arab uprisings have spread through most of the region, a mass movement has yet to materialize in Lebanon.
But to understand whether or not Beirut is actually primed for violent upheaval, one must first consider Lebanon’s unique domestic context. The legacy of a brutal civil war, combined with the fact that Lebanon’s territory is used as a regional geopolitical battleground, has shaped a Lebanese generation that is loathe to allow violence to engulf its streets once again. Subsequently, although anxious about Syrian spillover, most Lebanese seem willing to pay a high price for stability. This pervasive, albeit under-appreciated, point of view among mainstream Lebanese has kept the small Mediterranean state stable throughout the Syrian tumult thus far, and will likely continue to do so.
Civil war stains the history of many nations, but Lebanon’s most recent experience has had a particularly significant impact on the country’s contemporary character. Enduring from 1975 to 1990, Lebanon’s civil war spanned a generation and ended recently enough to be fresh in the minds of most citizens and politicians. It flattened Beirut, killed at least 150,000 people, heightened sectarian divisions, and tarnished the country’s reputation as a friendly and safe tourist destination. The war further solidified Syria’s military and political influence in Lebanon’s domestic affairs.
Since 1990, Lebanon’s diverse ethnic, religious, and political composition has turned the country into an arena where regional actors compete over geopolitical interests. For example, Iran and Syria support their Shia counterpart Hezbollah in opposition to the more Western-friendly, mainly Sunni and Christian March 14 Alliance. At the same time, divisions in the West Bank often drive the political struggles in Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps. Understandably then, most Lebanese ascribe internal violence to external meddling, and fiercely resent foreign intervention in their affairs.
For obvious historical reasons, Syria’s involvement is a particularly sensitive subject for the Lebanese, and the impact that Syria’s crisis has had on its neighbor over the past year is substantial and ongoing. Syrian shells that land in Lebanon have wounded many and have forced villagers to flee their homes. The number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon now exceeds 100,000, according to UNHCR, and the kidnapping of Syrians in Lebanon ostensibly by Syrian government agents has proliferated.
An incident that occurred last month provides a specific and potent example. The head of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces (ISF), General Wissam al-Hassan, was killed in a car bombing in Eastern Beirut on October 19, 2012. His death fueled further speculation that the Syrian conflict was spilling over into Beirut, because Hassan, a Sunni and March 14 Alliance supporter, had previously taken actions that undermined the interests of President Assad and Hezbollah.
And yet, despite Lebanon’s incredibly fragile geopolitical position, the country has not imploded. Although national and regional politics dominate news about Lebanon, the Lebanese population refuses to be manipulated for political gain. It is taking steps to ensure that the country does not succumb to the violence and instability in Syria. One manifestation of such sentiments is the recent White March in Beirut, during which people protested with the slogan “No bombs, No politics, No sectarianism.” Perhaps more significantly, the restraint demonstrated by families affected by Syrian violence in Tripoli and the Beqaa, or by the nation’s otherwise divisive politicians, illuminates a popular consensus in favor of stability.
Unfortunately, the possibility that a violent minority will take advantage of Lebanon’s vulnerable situation still exists. As isolated incidents of fighting indicate, some actors are interested in instigating a nation-wide conflict. But after a year and a half of de facto anarchy in Syria, the fact that these incidences have remained isolated is an encouraging sign and perhaps portends that the Lebanese will not allow external actors to instigate civil war in their country again.