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Crisis in the Levant

October 20, 2012

THE bombing which targeted a senior Lebanese intelligence official in Beirut on Friday does not bode well for regional peace. Seen to be linked to the Syrian civil war, it indicates the conflict within the borders of Lebanon’s eastern neighbour is spilling over. The man targeted — Wissam al-Hassan — was reportedly in the anti-Damascus camp and had overseen an investigation which linked Lebanese and Syrian officials to a bombing plot inside Lebanon. Syria has condemned the attack. Considering the region’s history, it is easy to see how tiny Lebanon can be sucked into the Syrian war. Syria has long been the power broker in Lebanon; its military intervened in the brutal 15-year Lebanese civil war under an Arab League mandate and only withdrew following the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. Internally, Lebanon is divided; politically there are pro- and anti-Syria factions while the country, which is administered under a confessional system, has sharp sectarian divisions. There have already been communal clashes and kidnappings in Lebanon linked to the trouble in Syria; communities in both countries have religious linkages. The bombings and kidnappings are an unhappy reminder of the war that ravaged Lebanon between 1975 and 1990. Long the battlefield of regional proxy wars, it appears as if the unforgiving cycle is beginning anew in Lebanon.

Beyond Lebanon, the situation on the Turkish-Syrian border remains grim. Syrian shells aimed at rebels operating in the border area often end up in Turkey and in the past have killed Turkish civilians. The Turks have responded by shelling Syrian positions. It is easy to imagine this disturbingly frequent exchange escalating into something larger. Meanwhile, UN-Arab League mediator Lakhdar Brahimi was in Damascus on Saturday pushing for the Syrian belligerents to accept a ceasefire over the Eidul Azha holidays. The Bashar al-Assad government as well as the Syrian rebels need to seize such opportunities as steps towards a peaceful settlement. Also, regional and extra-regional players must refrain from supporting factions within Syria. If opportunities for peace are lost, the Syrian conflict will inflame the entire region.