The Syrian army's attempt to suppress a months-old popular uprising have increasingly involved Lebanon, a destination for fleeing dissidents and a country whose politics are deeply intertwined with the Syrian regime.
Syria has begun planting land mines along its border with Lebanon in what officials describe as an attempt to block the flow of weapons from Lebanon into Syria. Lebanon has functioned as a safe haven for Syrian dissidents escaping the threat of government reprisals, including a group of Syrian army defectors who later claimed responsibility for a deadly attack that killed an officer and eight soldiers in Syria. The Lebanese police recently accused Syria of coordinating the kidnapping of Syrian exiles living in Lebanon -- yet another manifestation of Syria's long history of involvement in Lebanese affairs.
It's quite an irony because arms have long flowed in the other direction, primarily as a conduit of arms to Hezbollah, said Mona Yacoubian, a Syria expert at the non-profit Stimson Center.
In terms of the kidnapping of dissidents attempting to seek safe haven in Lebanon that's unfortunate but pretty par for the course for the Syrians, who have often acted with impunity in Lebanon and have felt no compunction about crossing the border.
Lebanon's fragile government is deeply divided between a dominant pro-Syrian coalition that includes members of the Shiite militant movement Hezbollah, which is backed by both Syria and Iran, and an opposition that is more closely aligned with the West and critical of Syrian influence. A member of the opposition condemned the Syrian army entering Lebanon to intercept fleeing Syrians, saying that the incursions into Lebanon violate human rights charters.
The Lebanese government must safeguard its sovereignty, said member of parliament Imad al-Hout.
The Lebanese government has remained silent on the issue, and has avoided denouncing the brutal tactics employed by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad -- Lebanon joined China and Russia in voting down a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the crackdown.
The opposition has also been cautious. A highly divisive, United Nations-backed investigation that linked the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri to Hezbollah, by extension implicating its patrons in the Syrian regime, led to the collapse of the Lebanese government. A spokesman for the opposition leader Saad Hariri, Rafik's son, said that they were assiduously avoiding appearance of trying to influence the situation in Syria.
Admittedly, the Syrian regime has difficult choices before it, Hariri adviser Mohammad Chattah told Voice of America. We try to, as much as we can, distance ourselves from what is happening. Not because we are not interested -- we are very interested -- but because we want to avoid any hint of Lebanon meddling in Syria's affairs.
There is also a fear within Lebanon that if the situation in Syria deteriorates or grows more unstable, it could exacerbate some of the deep tensions running through Lebanese society. Lebanon still bears the scars of a 15-year civil war that fractured the country along sectarian lines and led to a Syrian occupation that lasted until 2005.
I think all the actors in Lebanon across the spectrum see with concern the prospect for sectarian war in Syria and of course with the spil-lover effect into Lebanon, Yacoubian said. The prospect of civil war hangs over all of this, and behind this there's clear factions inside Lebanon, some of whom are attempting to bolster the regime and others who are very much opposed to it.
Hezbollah, in particular, is likely watching the situation with concern, given the prospect of potentially losing a powerful supporter should the Assad regime falter.
At the same time I think that the primary outside supporter of Hezbollah is still Iran, and Iran has been making noises about the need for more democracy in Syria, said Ibrahim Warde, an adjunct professor at Tufts University's Fletcher School of International Relations.
Indirectly that sounded like at least some mild criticism of Assad, but it also looks like Iran has been playing some role in terms of helping Syria cope with the sanctions regimen with an uptick in aid. I think everyone is quite cautious in terms of hedging their bets in terms of whatever the future holds.
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