Lebanon swamped by Syrian civil war

Tim Cavanaugh Contributor
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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regional influence is collapsing into chaos even as American plans for attacking his country stall out.

In an interview earlier this week with the Daily Caller, Fayez Ghosn, defense minister for Syria’s long-suffering client state Lebanon, urged the United States to hold off on President Barack Obama’s plan to attack Assad’s regime. But he acknowledged that Syria’s brutal civil war has already created tough burdens for his military.

“Right now only the Lebanese army is working on the land,” Ghosn said in an interview at his palatial home in Kousba, a town in the North Lebanon governate.  “It’s in the South, it’s in the North, it’s in Tripoli, it’s in Beirut, in the Bekaa, everywhere.”

Ghosn noted that in the midst of a flood of Syrian refugees — most of them Sunnis at odds with Lebanon’s much larger Shiite population — other institutions in Lebanon’s hobbled pro-Syrian government are facing similar hardships.

“In Lebanon we have a very big division between the Eight and the Fourteen,” he said, referring to both the “March Eight” coalition, which supports Syria and includes Shiite powerhouse Hezbollah, and the rival “March Fourteenth” coalition that formed after the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic al-Hariri and includes a mix of Sunni, Maronite Christian and other political interests.

Ghosn, a longtime member of parliament from the county of Koura, took over as defense minister in 2011, after a government led by Hariri’s son Saad Hariri collapsed. But the March Eighth government that appointed Ghosn has since begun to fray.

Lebanon technically has no prime minister now, and prominent members of the March Eight coalition, including Amal, Hezbollah’s main rival for Shiite voters, have begun to put some distance between themselves and the coalition. The tensions have been underscored by bombings this summer in a Shiite district of Beirut and more recently amid a cluster of Sunni mosques in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second city.

Lebanon’s military is structurally not capable of fending off attacks by either Syria or Israel, and the country’s most effective power, Hezbollah’s extensive irregular army, is presently engaged in assisting Assad put down the Sunni rebellion in Syria. Ghosn declined to say what Lebanon’s response would be if a U.S. attack involved incursions into Lebanese airspace or territory.

Nevertheless, the American-trained Lebanese army can occasionally provide domestic security, as it showed in a poorly executed but ultimately victorious five-month campaign in 2007 against Sunni Fatah al-Islam militants in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp.

“We have a very hard job, but nobody gives us help,” Ghosn said. “We need ammunition, we need equipment.” He suggested that the United States and other Western nations have been stingy with support, but he declined to elaborate.

The massive influx of Syrian refugees — reportedly more than a million in a country with just over four million people — has tested even these modest abilities. Ghosn pointed to violence in the Bekaa Valley border town of Arsal, where 35,000 Syrian refugees now outnumber the local population, and he said the army has been picking up “gangsters” from Syria and other countries.

“We can handle it,” he said. “We can handle it. But we need support.”

The defense minister’s grim view seems to echo Lebanon’s dismal domestic condition. While the tiny country is not near the peaks of violence it has experienced since the end of the civil war in 1991, its tourism economy has entered a serious slump. Crowds are sparse in hotels and restaurants.  This summer’s Baalbeck Festival was a disappointment, and other events have been canceled. An entertainer from Jounieh told TheDC she is only booking shows outside the country these days.

Much of the turmoil stems from the country’s political stalemate. Lebanon still has a nominally pro-Syrian rump government, but the Syrian civil war doesn’t leave Assad much room to project power in Lebanon. Hezbollah itself reportedly suffered heavy losses in its victory over the Free Syrian Army in the Syrian town of Qusayr in early August, a battle that at least temporarily seems to have turned the tide of the civil war back in Assad’s favor.

Ghosn declined to comment on most of this, and he said the weakening of Assad is not a major factor in Lebanon’s troubles. But he  acknowledged that the emergence of Lebanon as a transfer point for both Sunni and Shia fighters headed for Syria is destabilizing the country.

“This was a very big mistake from the beginning,” Ghosn told TheDC. “When they went to help the opposition, and afterward  the other side did the same. This was a big mistake…  We maintain security at the border, but that’s the most we can do, not more… It’s a very big frontier.”