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What Will Events in Syria Mean for Lebanon?

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SYRIA PROTESTS

Lebanon, again bereft of a government and with the country split down the middle into pro- and anti-Syria camps, now faces the repercussions of instability in Syria.

There is a saying in the Middle East that "chaos in Lebanon does not mean chaos in Syria, but chaos in Syria is guaranteed to destabilize Lebanon."

This Friday all eyes will be on the potential for protests and the government response in Syria. However there is also a flashpoint looming in northern Lebanon where both pro- and anti-Syrian regime protests have been planned. Lebanese Security officials in the north have rejected requests for permits to hold the two demonstrations in Tripoli, but their calls have fallen on deaf ears with both protests being advertised widely.

Friday's flashpoint is one of the varieties of short- and medium-term repercussions that events in Syria have for Lebanon. In addition to the potential for violent clashes between the two sides, the apparent weakness of Assad's regime in Damascus has emboldened the March 14th movement, which has been steadily drained of support since the heyday of the 2005 Syrian departure from the country.

The boost of seeing the Assad regime in trouble comes at a critical time as indictments have been delivered by the Special Tribunal into the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Disagreement over the tribunal has already led to the collapse of the government and a dangerous inertia over attempts to form a new one.

Syrian concerns over an emboldened March 14 movement were witnessed by the Al-Watan Syrian newspaper accusing the movement on Thursday of providing political and financial cover to Salafist groups accused of killing Syrian citizens, an accusation that Future bloc MP Jamal al-Jarrah described as "shameful."

For once we have the rather bizarre scenario of Lebanon being accused of interfering in Syria. In the latest Time magazine Nicholas Blanford asks, "Why does Syria see a threat coming from tiny Lebanon?" explaining that:

The brunt of Syrian paranoia seems to be focused on Lebanon. Last week, Syrian state television aired the alleged confessions of three members of the Muslim Brotherhood who claimed to have been planning to incite protests and form armed groups on the instructions of Jamal Jarrah, a Lebanese parliamentarian belonging to the Future Movement, a Sunni political block headed by Saad Hariri, the caretaker prime minister and the bête noire of Damascus. Jarrah has denied the accusation, but the claim has ignited fresh tensions between the Syrian authorities and Lebanese opponents of the Syrian regime. "If any harm comes to Syria, then Lebanon will be harmed," said Ali Abdel Karim Ali, the Syrian ambassador to Lebanon, in what many Lebanese interpreted as a threat.

Blanford goes on to describe how activists who have been organizing or taking part in events in Syria have been using Lebanon as strategic depth, paying smugglers to help move them across the porous and only partially demarcated border between the two countries.

Meanwhile Hezbollah, one of Syria's key allies in Lebanon, has been conspicuously quiet on events in Syria. While their leader Nasrallah has been quick to criticize the Bahraini authoritys' clampdown on protesters recently, there has been silence in regard to the suppression of dissent in Syria. Furthermore Hezbollah's Executive Council head, Sheikh Nabil Qaouk, has accused the Future Movement earlier this month of involvement in a conspiracy to undermine Syrian stability.

To date, Lebanon has perhaps been the one Arab country not to have been directly affected by the "Arab Awakening," largely as the population has no government to bring down. The relatively neutral Prime Ministerial nominee, Najib Mikati, has urged all sides to "refrain from interacting with regional events to avoid negative repercussions on the domestic scene." However, as this article has shown, the country is fated to be continually tied to events in Syria and the vulnerabilities associated with them regardless.

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