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The Daily Star Lebanon Syria’s partiti on could crack Lebanon

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    The Daily Star Lebanon Syria’s partition could crack Lebanon July 01, 2011 01:38 AM By Michael Young The Daily Star
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 1, 2011
      The Daily Star Lebanon
      Syria’s partition could crack Lebanon

      July 01, 2011 01:38 AM
      By Michael Young
      The Daily Star


      It is difficult to see how President Bashar Assad will prevail over the
      growing protests demanding an end to his regime. More than two months of
      carnage by the Syrian army and security forces have failed to shake the
      demonstrators’ determination, and surely will not.

      There are many scenarios for what might happen in Syria. Lebanese
      should pay attention to one in particular. As it dawns on the Assads
      that their days in power are numbered, we should consider the option
      that they and the minority Alawite community will move to an alternate
      plan. Unable to subdue Syria, the regime may contemplate falling back on
      an Alawite-dominated statelet in northwest Syria.

      There is little certainty surrounding such a scheme. In recent weeks
      the army and security services have been active in Idlib province along
      the Turkish border, after their assault near the Lebanese border,
      particularly in Talkalakh – accompanied by an ongoing campaign to pacify
      the Homs to Aleppo axis. Even if the Assads’ priority is to reimpose
      their writ over Syria in its entirety, the actions in these areas may,
      simultaneously, serve another purpose: to consolidate Alawite control
      over the margins of a future mini-state.

      Alawites are concentrated in the mountain region and cities of Syria’s
      northwest, even if they have moved elsewhere during the past decades.
      Notably, they have moved into the plains of Homs and Hama, where they
      generally live around the main cities. If the community sought to
      establish a statelet, it would have to implement a three-tiered process.
      This would involve preparing a forward defense line near areas of Sunni
      urban concentration, along the Homs-Hama-Aleppo road. It would also
      entail strengthening Alawite control over the community’s heartland
      further to the west, particularly over the coastal cities, while arming
      Alawite villages.

      The third stage of the process would necessitate securing a parallel
      line of defense along the eastern edge of the Alawite mountains, above
      the plains leading toward Homs, Hama and Aleppo. Not coincidentally,
      perhaps, the northern hinge of this boundary is at Jisr al-Shughour,
      while the southernmost hinge is at Talkalakh. These are places allowing
      the regime to close off access to predominantly Sunni districts across
      the borders. However, the terror tactics adopted by the Syrian army,
      security forces and irregular pro-regime militias are disturbingly
      similar to those of the Serb-dominated army and Serb paramilitaries
      during the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. Is the aim to cause
      permanent population displacement? That’s unclear. However, there is a
      geographical rationale behind the Assads’ strategy, and its
      repercussions cannot but affect sectarian relations.

      As Lebanese watch developments next door, how might they react? If the
      Assads manage to retreat to an Alawite fortress, the repercussions in
      Lebanon (not to say Iraq) could be frightening. Attention would be drawn
      to Lebanon’s Shiites, but also Christians, to see if they might envisage
      a similar route toward communal self-preservation.

      The Shiites are far less likely to be tempted by the idea of forming a
      communal statelet than are the Christians, for obvious reasons. The
      areas of Shiite concentration are not contiguous. Dispersed among the
      northern Bekaa Valley, the western Bekaa, southern Lebanon and Beirut’s
      southern suburbs, the Shiite community would be unable to bind these
      regions together into any sort of cohesive whole.

      In reality, the hazards lie elsewhere. If the Assad regime were to
      collapse, this would represent, potentially, an existential setback, for
      Hezbollah. The party would strive to defend itself, and its options are
      limited. Some have speculated that Hezbollah might try to tighten its
      grip on the state and weaken its adversaries decisively, perhaps through
      a military strike broader than that of May 2008. However, that would
      almost certainly fail, instead provoking civil war.

      Hezbollah must be aware of this. The party is immensely potent as an
      armed force, but the only real solution to its dilemma if Assad rule
      were brought down is a far-reaching domestic political compromise. The
      party would be reluctant to engage in one, however, at least from a
      position of weakness. The reason is that any serious internal dialogue
      would necessarily have to address Hezbollah’s disarmament, which the
      party’s leadership will not sanction.

      The ensuing deadlock could push Hezbollah to do two apparently
      contradictory things: maintain its presence in state institutions at all
      costs in order to protect its interests; but also, facing an invigorated
      Lebanese Sunni community bolstered by an invigorated Syrian Sunni
      community, further separate territories under its influence from the
      rest of Lebanon, both physically and psychologically. In other words,
      even as it rejects a Lebanese sectarian breakup, Hezbollah may be
      compelled to pursue that very path to survive. And this could be
      accompanied by an impulse, even a political need, to collaborate with
      other friendly sectarian entities, an Alawite entity above all.

      Which leads us to the Lebanese Christians. There is profound
      alienation among many Christians from post-Taif Lebanon, and from the
      idea of coexistence with the country’s Muslim communities in the context
      of the centralized state that emerged after independence in 1943. This
      has been debilitating for Christians, accelerating the community’s
      isolation and sense of decline. Yet virtually all mainstream Christian
      political groupings deep down aspire to a Lebanese state – federal,
      confederal or otherwise – that allows a majority of Christians to govern
      themselves and live among their own.

      This mad project is more likely to lead to communal regression and
      suicide. And yet many Christians will look closely at a Alawite
      statelet, if one were to take shape, and see how it might serve or
      buttress their own aspirations. And if this were to come at a moment
      when the Shiites themselves were experimenting with some de facto scheme
      of disconnection from Lebanon, it could intensify the centrifugal forces
      in the country and even eventually prompt a sizable number of Christians
      and Shiites to join efforts against a perceived Sunni threat.

      For now, and hopefully well beyond, this may be political fiction. But
      ours is not a healthy national mood to defend the Lebanese entity as we
      know it. Even during the war, Lebanese unity was, paradoxically, more
      solid than today. The fire lit in Syria could feed Lebanon’s divisions.
      Unless we’re sensitive to the risks, Lebanon could burn.

      Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR and author of “The
      Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life
      Struggle” (Simon & Schuster), listed as one of the 10 notable books of
      2010 by The Wall Street Journal. He tweets BeirutCalling.

      A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily
      Star on July 01, 2011, on page 7.
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