Journal Essay

The Syrian War: Spillover Effects on Lebanon

Bassel F. Salloukh

Spring 2017, Volume XXIV, Number 1

Dr. Salloukh is associate professor of political science at the Lebanese American University in Beirut.

Nowhere have the spillover effects of the overlapping domestic, regional and international war for Syria proved more devastating than in Lebanon.1 Whether in terms of increased sectarian agitation and violence, refugee flows, the mushrooming of local and transnational Salafi-jihadi cells, or the matrix of regional and international actors involved, the Syrian war has placed new economic, social, political and security strains on an already over-stretched Lebanese system. The metrics alone are astounding.

As of winter 2017, the number of officially registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon was 1,011,366.2 The Lebanese government estimates that nearly half a million additional refugees are not registered with UN agencies, bringing the total to a quarter of the Lebanese population.3 The World Bank calculates that the financial and economic costs of this refugee population amounts to some $4.5 billion per year.4 These socioeconomic and fiscal pressures compound Lebanon's security conditions. Small crimes have increased by more than 60 percent since 2011; Syrians make up 26 percent of Lebanon's prison population; and human trafficking of Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is commonplace.5 The war has also intensified the domestic and regional political struggle over post-Syria Lebanon and the crisis of postwar power sharing.

The 1989 Taif Accord that ended Lebanon's civil war (1975-90) was anchored on a particular regional-international constellation involving a Saudi-American-Syrian guardianship over Lebanon that was directly supervised by Damascus. As this guardianship turned into an open geopolitical confrontation after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafic al-Hariri, it triggered a contest over who rules post-Syria Lebanon between two multi-sectarian political gatherings — the March 8 and March 14 coalitions — that overlapped with a wider geopolitical one. Led primarily by the pro-Iranian Shia Hezbollah party, the March 8 coalition6 sought to defend Syria's interests in Lebanon. By contrast, the March 14 coalition7 gathered political groups opposed to Syria, led by Saad al-Hariri's pro-Saudi Sunni Future Movement. Albeit these were multi-sectarian coalitions that disagreed over different visions of Lebanon, its security priorities and its alliance choices, they nevertheless expressed a political struggle among the mainly Sunni and Shia political elite and their external patrons over who should control the post-Syria Lebanese state.

The Christian sectarian political elite felt increasingly marginalized as this overlapping contest escalated. The 29-month vacuum after the end of Michel Sleiman's (2008-14) presidential tenure was a stark reminder of a community increasingly relegated to the status of an appendage rather than an equal partner in the postwar power-sharing arrangement. The country's postwar Maronite presidents had been handpicked either by Syria8 or, following the latter's withdrawal from Lebanon, by agreement between the main regional actors — namely Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia — and their protégés among Lebanon's Muslim political elite. But with the country's main Sunni and Shia protagonists preoccupied in the Syrian war, what was the role of the heavyweight representatives of the Christian communities in Lebanon's postwar power-sharing arrangement? The Maronite sectarian elite insisted that only a widely representative in-group candidate should assume the presidency. After all, this is the practice among other sectarian communities, where top public posts are reserved for sectarian elite heavyweights or their in-group-designated representatives. For the Christian political elite, then, the contest was not just over who rules post-Syria Lebanon, but also how. They insisted on full ownership of their part of the power-sharing arrangement.

Some observers have suggested that the socioeconomic and political pressures generated or exacerbated by the spillover effects of the war for Syria produced a context "strikingly parallel to the period preceding the 1975-90 civil war."9 According to this view, the "presence of armed groups acting autonomously in pursuit of a divisive cause tied into a regional dispute" is eerily reminiscent of the Lebanon of the late 1960s and early 1970s, one that ultimately set the country on the slippery slope toward civil war.10 Yet, despite this context, post-Syria Lebanon amounts to a political puzzle precisely because a civil war among the Sunni and Shia protagonists has not occurred in the past decade or so. To put this differently: given the sectarianization of the overlapping domestic and geopolitical contest over post-Syria Lebanon since 2005 — and how this contest was exacerbated by the spillover effects of the Syrian war — why has a civil war not erupted in a country notorious for its deeply divided society, institutionally and coercively weak state, and permeable regional environment?

Part of the explanation involves the military imbalance among the different sectarian communities. Hezbollah, by far the most militarily powerful of them, is especially wary of a civil war given its preoccupation in the Syrian theatre of operations and in deterring any potential Israeli attack against Lebanon. Yet this has not prevented other communities, especially militant Sunni groups, from challenging its political and military power. Another part of the explanation pertains to Syria's emergence as the primary site of regional and international proxy wars for the foreseeable future, a role traditionally played by Lebanon. However, a fuller explanation of this puzzle must also consider the impact of the institutional architecture of power-sharing in Lebanon.

This paper contends that it is the country's postwar corporate consociational arrangement that helps explain the lack of civil war in post-Syria Lebanon. The pre-war corporate power-sharing arrangement associated with the 1943 National Pact had privileged the country's Christian politico-economic elite at the expense of their Muslim counterparts.11 The former dominated the state's executive, bureaucratic, legislative, judicial and military offices, and the country's main economic sectors. It reserved the presidency to the Maronites, an office that controlled the state's political, financial and judicial institutions. Furthermore, the president's prerogatives were buttressed by Maronite control over the most sensitive security and military posts. In parliament, the ratio of Christian to Muslim deputies was fixed at 6:5; a similar ratio was applied in the cabinet and state bureaucracy.

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