The killing of a Lebanese man outside the Iranian embassy in Beirut has emphasised the growing dilemma posed by Hezbollah’s increasing involvement in the Syrian Civil War. The Shia militant group, traditionally supported by the Iranian government, has sent men and arms to fight beside Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s troops in their war against Sunni rebels.
Hezbollah’s presence in Syria is deeply troubling as it could indirectly lead to the spilling over of the conflict into Lebanon and the Golan Heights, a disputed zone largely occupied by Hezbollah’s arch enemies, the Israelis.
There can be no more potent reminder of the vulnerability of the Middle East region than the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) during which a Christian minority government was forced into conflict with a coalition of Palestinian rebels evicted from the Holy Land, left-wing Muslim militias and Syrian forces supplied by Hafiz al-Assad (Bashar’s father). Some 120,000 people were killed during a war that led to Israeli occupation of Southern Lebanon, Syrian occupation of much of the remainder of the country and the establishment (in 1985) of Hezbollah.
National conflicts in the Middle East invariably do not stay that way. The sectarian divide between and within Sunni, Shia, Jewish and Christian groups, dispersed across a variety of countries, means support will always be found beyond one’s borders by any group engaged in conflict. This conversely means that the conflict itself is likely to follow these channels of support into neighbouring countries.
The murder of the Lebanese man in Beirut, an activist opposing the actions of Hezbollah in Syria, could easily provoke a response from the wide variety of ethnic groups within Lebanon and, by extension, their supporters abroad.
Lebanon has already experienced another tragic consequence of the Syrian Civil War, that of the massive displacement of Syrian civilians who have fled across the Lebanese border in the hope of escape and salvation. Some 76,000 people remain displaced from the Lebanese Civil War itself. Not only do these forced migrations put great pressure on local resources but they intensify the potential for conflict spillover as different ethnic groups ‘invade’ the territory of another, whether intentionally or not.
One recent example of such a phenomenon is Sudan, where hundreds of thousands of civilians from a variety of tribal and religious groups have fled the war in Darfur and conflict along the borderlands of Sudan and South Sudan in recent years. On resettling, groups traditionally estranged from one another have come into contact, occasionally resulting in the outbreak of new conflicts as belief systems clash and competition for resources ensues.
It is thought that as many as one-third of Syria’s population of 22.5m have been displaced from their homes since the war began. Where can they go? How will they be received should they escape across neighbouring borderlands into countries such as Lebanon and Turkey, another country currently experiencing its own internal strife?
The answer to these questions will determine the likelihood of the Syrian Civil War spiralling into a regional conflict that inflames hatreds between the Middle East’s major powers, few of which have shown a reluctance to use force in the past.
With this thought in mind, it must surely be time for the Western powers, particularly the US, to consider direct military intervention in the hope that further misery can be avoided.