Will Syria’s civil war spread to Lebanon? The case for ‘no’


An onlooker stands amid rubble outside Iran's embassy in southern Beirut. (AFP/Getty Images)

Today's bombings in Beirut, which killed 23 people just outside the Iranian Embassy, have once again raised fears that the civil war in neighboring Syria could spread more widely into Lebanon. Will it?

There are good reasons to worry. Lebanon has seen several eruptions of violence, thought by many to be spillover from Syria. The two countries share similar sectarian divisions and are deeply interlinked. The Lebanese militant group Hezbollah is fighting in Syria on behalf of Bashar al-Assad's government, for example, and Iran is heavily involved in both countries. Maybe most worrying of all, Lebanon endured its own sectarian civil war, from 1975 to 1990, and remains divided along sometimes-tense ethnic and religious lines.

But Thanassis Cambanis, a Beirut-based journalist who wrote a great book on Hezbollah, makes a compelling case that Lebanon is probably not on the verge of combusting. Writing on his personal blog, Thanassis points out that "the major players in Lebanon" all still have a vested interest in preserving  stability and the status quo there.

Here's Thanassis:

The major actors with organizations in Lebanon, including the Sunnis who support the Syrian rebels, as well as the Hezbollah constituents who support the Syrian government, benefit from the truce in Lebanon. Beirut especially serves as a neutral area where all parties communicate with each other, raise funds, and do their political work.

He sees another reason for hope in Iran's immediate reaction to the bombing, which was to blame Israel. Anything is possible, but right now it seems most probable that the bombing was carried out by Sunni groups, who are actively fighting Iran in Syria and have the clearest immediate interest in degrading Tehran's reach there. Bombing an embassy also seems more like something that Syria's Sunni rebels would do than a typical Israeli action. Thanassis suspects that Iran knows all this. "Blaming Israel is a calming gesture," he writes. "Even if Hezbollah and Iran suspect a local or Syrian Sunni network, it deflates tension to pin the attack on Israel."

Of course, as he acknowledges, bombings like this are still bad; a number of people were killed and injured today. And that's likely to continue as long as Syria is in a state of civil war. But the silver lining is that Lebanon itself, Thanassis suspects, may be able to resist falling into "outright conflict." It's just not in anybody's interest to see another Lebanese civil war.

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Max Fisher · November 18, 2013