Why Lebanon isn't headed for civil war

The death of Brigadier General Wissam al-Hassan in Lebanon has led to some overheated international speculation.

Maya Alleruzzo/AP
Workers stand near an apartment building severely damaged in a car bomb attack that killed Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan in the Achrafiye district of Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, Oct. 23. Calm returned to the streets of Lebanon's capital on Tuesday, a day after troops launched a major security operation to quell fighting touched off by the assassination of a top anti-Syrian intelligence chief.

Five days after a devastating bomb attack killed a top Lebanese security chief sparking minor clashes and road blockages by his supporters, a semblance of calm has returned to a country that has little interest in starting a new civil war. 

The death of Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, head of the police's intelligence bureau, in a car bomb explosion in Beirut provoked headlines around the world that Lebanon was descending toward renewed civil strife and suffering the consequences of a spillover from neighboring Syria, which is caught in its own devastating conflict. Although Syria has been blamed by many Lebanese for Hassan's assassination, the reality is more complex, and the prognosis not necessarily as dire as the international assumptions would suggest.

“No I don’t think there will be a civil war from this assassination,” says Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Center in Beirut. “The leaderships of March 14 and March 8 do not want instability in Lebanon at this time,” he added referring to the two rival parliamentary coalitions that dominate the Lebanese political landscape.

Still, Lebanon does face a period of uncertainty as Syria collapses into ever-worsening violence. Lebanon’s communal stresses and strains and the conflict in Syria almost guarantee further acts of violence – assassinations, random bomb attacks, Shiite-Sunni violence, or possible clashes along the sensitive northern and eastern borders with Syria. But there are compelling reasons why Lebanon will not succumb to the kind of full-blown civil war that ravaged the country between 1975 and 1990.

First, memories of that debilitating 16-year conflict are still raw. The war left more than 100,000 people dead and some 17,000 still missing, a substantial number for a country with a population today of only 4 million. No one seeks a return to that grim and bloody period.

Second, in 1975, the military balance between the rival sides was more equally matched than is the case today. In 2012, there is only one major non-state armed force – the militant Shiite Hezbollah. With its enormous military resources, Hezbollah could defeat the Lebanese Army, let alone another militia.

The confrontational dynamic in Lebanon today is no longer Christian against Muslim, but Sunni against Shiite, reflecting the intra-Muslim schism that has taken hold in the region during the past decade. Several hundred Lebanese Sunni volunteers have joined the ranks of the rebel Free Syrian Army to fight the forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. Radical voices drawn mainly from the clergy are emerging in Lebanon in reaction to the Syria conflict as well as Sunni frustration at the rising power of Lebanese Shiites and a moderate Sunni leadership that seems out of step with the mood on the street.

Hezbollah cadres say they are bracing for what they believe is an inevitable large-scale car-bomb attack – of the kind that has blighted Iraq and more recently Syria – targeting the party’s stronghold in the densely populated southern suburbs of Beirut. Yet, in general, Lebanese Sunnis are unable to mount a prolonged internal conflict, especially against Hezbollah, even if the leadership of the community wanted to do so.

Third, despite the factional rivalries in Lebanon, the top leaders agree on the importance of maintaining stability in Lebanon and not allowing Syria’s woes to trigger domestic violence. Hezbollah stayed out of the sporadic clashes that followed Hassan’s death last week, recognizing that the Sunni supporters of the slain security chief were venting anger rather than seeking a war. The Lebanese Army also had political cover to move into trouble spots in Beirut and elsewhere to stamp out the clashes.

As the tensions on the streets dissipate, the rival factions are pursuing their disagreements on a political level. The Western-backed March 14 coalition is seeking the resignation of the government and its replacement with a neutral cabinet of technocrats drawn from neither camp. The March 8 coalition, which is headed by Hezbollah and forms the backbone of the government, refuses to step down but has said it is open to a possible cabinet reshuffle.

The Lebanese have long endured factional violence and have developed a battle-worn resilience that helps maintain a (somewhat dysfunctional) degree of stability.

“Top-level assassinations and instant street clashes that would shatter most other countries are taken in stride by most Lebanese, who stay home for 36 hours and then resume their normal lives,” wrote Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute of Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in a weekly column for Agence Global.

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